Clinton tries to claw back middle-class

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The Independent Online
His hour and 20 minutes before a packed Congress and the nation's prime-time television cameras behind him, President Bill Clinton yesterday headed to industrial Pennsylvania to begin a far longer and more arduous task - proving that in a Republic an-dominated Washington he can still call some of the shots.

In many respects, the third State of the Union message on Tuesday was a return to the spirit of President Clinton's 1992 campaign - a resurrection of the themes that carried him to the White House.

As usual, instant polls showed strong public backing for the speech. But an ABC News survey afterwards conveyed a sobering truth. The statesman's appeal to "put aside pettiness, partisanship and pride" may have gone down well but, by a 55 to 41 per cent majority, Americans do not believe he deserves a second term.

As always, Mr Clinton was an effective performer, often witty, sometimes folksy and sometimes rousing. But neither his own geniality nor the traditional decorum of the occasion could gloss over the partisan battles which surely lie ahead in the 104th Congress. One proposal would be greeted by roaring Democratic approval and virtual Republican silence. The next instant the roles would be reversed - thunderous Republican cheers, and tepid approval from his own ranks.

Nor was there any hiding Mr Clinton's own diminished status after the Democrats' mid-term election rout. Its verbal symbol was his own chastened observation that "I have made my mistakes and learned again the importance of humility"; its physical embodiment was the presence of Newt Gingrich, the first Republican Speaker for 40 years, sitting alongside Vice-President Al Gore above the rostrum from which the President spoke.

The address and its calls for reduced government, lower taxes and smaller spending, showed how Mr Clinton is now moving back to his pragmatic "New Democrat" roots, even to the point of using words like "empowerment", stolen from the core vocabulary of his foes.Gone, for example, was last year's ringing oratory about universal health coverage, and theatrical brandishing of the Presidential veto pen.

This time Mr Clinton barely touched upon what once was intended to be the crowning glory of his Presidency, but ended as 1994's crowning legislative disaster, lifting himself to a meek appeal for "step-by-step" reform, starting with changes in insurance practice, as advocated by none other than Bob Dole, the new Senate Majority leader.

"A very useful speech," was Mr Gingrich's verdict yesterday. The fact remains, however, that the Republican majorities in both House and Senate mean that several of the President's proposals have scant chance of passage. Those that do must be tailored toattract bipartisan support.

In practice Mr Clinton is left with two weapons: his ``bully pulpit'' powers of persuasion, and the Presidential veto which, he warned, would greet any Republican bid to overturn the control of handgun purchases and the ban on various assault weapons wrested with such difficulty from even the previous Democrat-controlled Congress.

The main points of Clinton's speech New Covenant between government and governed: less state interference in return for greater personal responsibility An increase in the minimum wage (now $4.25/hour)

A clampdown on illegal immigration A middle-class Bill of Rights - tax credits and deductions for higher education - paid for by $130bn of government cuts Support for step-by-step health care reform, starting with changes in insurance coverage rules Overhaul of the "failed" US welfare system A veto of any attempt to repeal the Brady Bill on hand-gun controls, and the ban on 19 types of assault weapons passed in the 1994 Crime Bill.

Comprehensive anti-terrorist legislation later this year Curbs on lobbying activities, including an end to perks for Congressmen, and campaign finance reform with cost caps and free television access for candidates