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Clinton Confronts Painful Task of Redefining His Presidency

By Ronald Brownstein
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

If last year's State of the Union address reflected a man impatient to mark his place in history, this year's speech by President Clinton bore the imprint of a battle-scarred political veteran whose eyes are on survival, not simply posterity.

Like a latter-day Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton came into office determined to drive into law a herd of ambitious legislative proposals. With Tuesday night's address, Clinton confronted the painful process of redefining his presidency, maintaining his relevance, and reclaiming public support at a time when almost all his ideas and priorities will fall on barren ground in Congress.

As much in what the president omitted as in what he said, Tuesday's speech underscored just how much last fall's Republican landslide has forced him to circumscribe his ambitions. No longer can he focus on enshrining his ideas into law. Instead, he has largely had to shift his attention to a defensive goal of halting the Republican drive to retrench the government.

Just a year ago, Clinton stood in the well of the House chamber and unfurled a legislative wish list that might have made even Johnson blush: education reform, defense conversion, a crime bill, a ban on assault weapons, welfare reform, campaign finance and lobbying reform, urban revitalization, and above all, health care reform that would finally fulfill the half-century liberal quest for guaranteed universal coverage.

Tuesday night, the president presented some specific initiatives, like new efforts to deter the hiring of illegal immigrants. But mostly his remarks inadvertantly illuminated his diminished position. In place of last year's detailed legislative blueprint, Clinton broadly lamented civic disengagement, defended accomplishments already on the books, and offered some ideas, like raising the minimum wage and banning gifts from lobbyists to legislators. In contrast to last year's vision of a health care system reconstructed from the ground up, Clinton Tuesday night, in a tone that was almost plaintive, pleaded for Congress to work with him on "step by step" reform.

Clinton's immediate priority in the speech was a remarkable one for a president: reasserting himself as a meaningful force in the life of the capital and the country. Polls show substantial majorities want the Republican Congress, not Clinton, to take the lead in solving the country's problems.

In his effort to fight his way out of that corner, Clinton relied heavily on the themes that have undergirded every major speech he has delivered on the national stage. His lengthy analysis of government reform restated the principles of the "reinventing government" initiative that has burrowed into the bureaucracy under the direction of Vice President Al Gore.

But the center of Tuesday night's address was Clinton's conception of a social contract based on reciprocal responsibility - what he termed, in a return to language common during his campaign, a "New Covenant" between government and its citizens.

Still, for Clinton, the question of whether Americans believe the ideas he expressed Tuesday night may be less important than whether they are convinced he believes them. Or that he has the will and commitment to stand by them against opposition from the GOP or his own party.

For all his talk about personal responsibility, Clinton did not push his welfare reform initiative during his first two years - partly to avoid antagonizing liberals whose votes he coveted for health care reform. During an interminable legislative debate over crime, he did not forcefully confront House liberals who tilted the bill's intricate balance away from prisons and police and more heavily toward social programs.

Some around Clinton fret that even Tuesday's largely centrist message may be overshadowed by his nod toward the traditional liberal priority of raising the minimum wage. And it will be extremely difficult for Clinton to win Congressional approval for raising the minimum wage, or indeed almost all of his other priorities. But White House aides are hopeful that even without many tangible legislative accomplishments Clinton can use the next two years to frame the choice for 1996.

While Clinton signaled support for some Republican priorities, White House aides say the president will not hesitate to veto legislation that threatens what he considers his core achievements of the first two years.