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In Midst of Turmoil, Clinton Pledges an Activist Agenda

By John F. Harris
The Washington Post

President Clinton Tuesday night presented a glowing review of a nation at once wealthy and secure because of his policies and pledged to devote the rest of his term to an activist agenda aimed at creating, "An America which leads the world to new heights of peace and prosperity."

This triumphant message was delivered by a president gravely imperiled by personal turmoil. For days, White House aides said they agonized over whether Clinton should mention the controversy and whether what is ordinarily the paramount occasion for a president to speak directly and at length to citizens would be irreparably tarnished. But instead they decided Clinton would try to turn attention away from his personal travails and toward his public agenda.

Speaking to a joint session of Congress, Clinton began his address with a dramatic gesture concerning Social Security. Clinton sternly warned Congress against using budget surpluses created by the roaring economy for tax cuts or spending until the long-term solvency of the retirement program is assured.

"Save Social Security first," Clinton declared. He endorsed a series of non-partisan forums this year to build political support for reform, then said he would convene congressional leaders a year from now to craft legislation. "I urge all Americans to join us - in facing these issues squarely, and forming a true consensus on how to proceed," Clinton said.

More immediately, Clinton appealed for an increase in the minimum wage, though he did not endorse a precise amount by which the current $5.15 per hour wage should be raised. "Because these times are good, we can afford to take one simple, sensible step to help millions of workers struggling to provide for their families," the president said.

In contrast to a generally sunny assessment of America's domestic health, Clinton had dire words about two overseas crises: in Iraq, where administration officials have warned that a military strike could come within two weeks; and in Pacific Rim nations suffering steep downward slides in their economies.

Clinton said Iraq must stop thwarting U.N. inspectors searching for biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs, at one point addressing Iraqi president Saddam Hussein directly: "You can not defy the will of the world. You have used weapons of mass destruction before. We are determined to deny you the capacity to use them again."

Noting the recent financial crises in countries such as Indonesia, South Korea, and Thailand, Clinton acknowledged that many Americans do not see how such problems affect them. But he said the interconnectedness of the global economy means that stemming recessions and currency crashes in Asia is "the right thing to do for America."

Delivering the Republican response, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., predicted that the battle over taxes and the intrusiveness of government would dominate the 1998 agenda, an election year in which partisan control of the House is expected to be closely contested.

"Big government or families?" Lott asked. "More taxes or more freedom?"

Clinton also said he is hoping for bipartisan solution to another issue: whether to enact a comprehensive settlement with the tobacco industry. As he has announced previously, Clinton endorsed using a combination of taxes and sanctions on the industry to raise the price of cigarettes by a $1.50 a pack over the next ten years."

Clinton is counting on passage of a tobacco settlement - which most independent observers consider a highly questionable prospect - to raise some $65 billion in new money for the government over the next five years, budget officials said. He is counting on much of this money to pay for new domestic initiatives this year.

Nearly all of these new proposals had been rolled out previously, in appearances by Clinton or in selective leaks by administration officials. Taken together, they represent the most expensive and comprehensive domestic agenda that Clinton has put forward since Republican captured control of Congress in 1994.

Clinton said the budget he will formally present to Congress next week includes more money to help local schools hire teachers, reducing class size in the process, and more money to modernize and build new schools. He also wants to increase tax credits to help low- and middle-income working parents subsidize the cost of child care.