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State of the Union Outlines Clinton's Domestic Agenda

By James Gerstenzang
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

President Clinton proposed a rescue plan for the Social Security system Tuesday night, using his seventh State of the Union address to offer the most sweeping domestic agenda of his second term.

Eight hours after his lawyers began telling the Senate why he should not be removed from office, the president offered to the nation a road map of social programs intended to protect Americans' health and retirement.

Admonishing the nation to not fall into complacency at a time of prosperity, Clinton declared: "How we fare as a nation far into the 21st century depends upon what we do as a nation today.

"With our budget surplus growing, our economy expanding, our confidence rising, now is the moment for this generation to meet our historic responsibility to the 21st century," he said, in a text released by the White House. "So let's get to work."

His program is built on a strict parceling of the anticipated budget surplus over the next 15 years, allocating 62 percent, more than $2.7 trillion, to Social Security, and the rest primarily to Medicare, a new retirement savings program dependent on private investment, and military and education needs. The budget surplus is expected to be $4.4 trillion over that period.

Speaking at one of the more extraordinary junctures in the history of the presidency, Clinton made no reference to his impeachment by the House of Representatives and his ongoing trial before the Senate.

Reflecting the divisions caused by the trial, six members of the House and one senator, all Republicans, said they would boycott the address.

Some Republicans had said the president should postpone the speech. House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois reminded members of Congress earlier they should greet Clinton in a dignified manner.

For Clinton, the speech represented his grandest opportunity to remind his national audience of his strengths those of a president focused on the domestic and economic issues that the public, in opinion surveys, lists time and again as its greatest concerns.

Taking advantage of that opportunity in the midst of the impeachment drama offered the president perhaps the most forceful defense he can present, because if his Senate trial, as many political scientists think, is ultimately a political rather than judicial test, then maintaining strong poll ratings may be his ultimate weapon.

Perhaps more than those of his recent predecessors, Clinton's State of the Union speech and the budget he will present Feb. 1 offer Clinton what counselor Doug Sosnik called a "center of gravity" to project his most ambitious goals for the coming year. Tuesday's call for reform of Social Security was as dramatic as any program he has espoused since 1994, when he called for universal health insurance.

At its heart, the program Clinton presented to the joint session of Congress this year was built around the need to tackle the most pressing problems facing the nation as it nears a new century, and the opportunities presented by the extended period of economic growth that has marked the end of the decade, and the first federal budget surplus since 1969.