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Clinton’s State of the Union: Another High-Wire Act for Clinton

Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.


Clinton’s State of the Union

Another High-Wire Act for Clinton

by David Kusnet

When President Clinton delivers his State of the Union Address on Tuesday night in the midst of his impeachment trial, he’ll be betting he can maintain his remarkable record of delivering rousing speeches under risky circumstances.

By now, Americans are used to Clinton striding to the podium at a joint session of Congress and performing a high-wire act without a safety net.

Last year, he spoke less than a week after Monica Lewinsky became a household word. Two years before that, the federal government had just been shut down. Three years earlier, he had suffered a stunning rebuke when the Republicans captured both houses of Congress. In other years, he had to compete with the verdict in O.J. Simpson’s civil trial, cope with a failing teleprompter, sell a cumbersome health care plan, and jump-start his presidency after a shaky first month. And, each time, most people agreed Clinton gave a great speech.

There’s something about Clinton’s presidency that periodically requires great speeches to rescue it. And there’s something about this gifted leader that almost always enables him to rise to the occasion.

But this time, Clinton must clear the three highest hurdles he’s ever faced, and that means he’ll need to give the best speech he’s ever delivered – one that moves beyond the cheerful minimalism of the past three years.

First, he needs to lift public discussion above the sordid charges he faces, which reach the level of personal embarrassment, if not presidential impeachment. As with his unusually muted address last year, he will have a harder time using the language of personal responsibility that, in earlier years, enabled him to hit his highest rhetorical notes. But, while Clinton can no longer be the preacher, he still can be the teacher: offering answers to the challenges the nation faces even after the extraordinary economic and social progress his policies have promoted.

Clinton needs to present a new agenda that inspires public support because he faces a second challenge that bedeviled even such popular predecessors as Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan in their second terms: how a “lame duck” president can push his policies through a hostile Congress.

And, finally, Clinton must clear a hurdle he’s set for himself: not only making it through the next two years but making history as well. While Eisenhower and Reagan took their time before supporting vice presidents Richard Nixon and George Bush as their successors, Clinton has already anointed Vice President Gore. And, more than most presidents, he’s already mused publicly about his own place in history. These ambitions also require Clinton to offer an agenda Americans will want to continue well after the conclusion of his second term.

So, no matter how many advisers counsel caution, Clinton needs to transcend the formula that got him through the 1996 election and the past two years.

Instead of pious platitudes, happy-talk, and focus-group-tested mini-initiatives, he should return to the approach that helped him overcome harsh personal attacks when he won the presidency in 1992: Remind the voters that the challenges they face are more important than the charges he faces. And present a new agenda for an anxious America plunging into an increasingly turbulent global economy.

Unlike Nixon’s 1974 State of the Union speech, in the depths of Watergate or Reagan’s 1987 address during the Iran-Contra scandal, Clinton is too shrewd a politician to discuss his predicament directly for a few minutes at the beginning or end of his talk.

Instead, he can be expected to address his impeachment inferentially all evening.

Perhaps he’ll begin by welcoming the new Speaker of the House, the little-known Dennis Hastert (R.-Ill.). Then, he’ll pay tribute to former Speaker Newt Gingrich and his fallen successor-to-be, Robert Livingston. And then, seamlessly, he could call upon both Houses of Congress to work together with him in a spirit of bipartisanship and civility. Or else, he might offer a similar statement at the conclusion of his speech, urging the House and Senate to address “the people’s business.”

But, for this appeal to succeed, he’ll need to emphasize the urgency of “the people’s business.” Here, this high-wire artist will walk a rhetorical tightrope: claiming credit for improved economic and social conditions, while still imparting urgency to his new agenda.

Rather than begin by bragging about his impressive economic record, Clinton should first congratulate Americans on strengthening the social fabric, with declining levels of violent crime, illegitimate births, and welfare dependency.

Clinton should say that his social policies helped people do the right things in their own lives. But, more important, Americans’ increasingly responsible behavior undercuts the most emotive argument against him: the view that his personal conduct somehow demoralizes the nation.

Turning to the economy, Clinton can be expected to tick off the same favorable facts he cited in a recent address at the Detroit Economic Club: declining unemployment, rising incomes, and uninterrupted expansion. But then, he should confound expectations and point to problems that most people fear without fully understanding: global economic instability, the rising tide of imports threatening jobs in manufacturing, corporate downsizings that reached record levels levels last year, and the increasing insecurity of health coverage and pension benefits.

As he did over the past year in well-reasoned but little-noticed addresses before elite audiences at the World Trade Organization, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the International Monetary Fund, Clinton should emphasize the importance of preparing ordinary citizens for international economic competition and preventing globalization from becoming a “race to the bottom” by setting standards for workers’ rights and environmental preservation.

Indeed, “widening the winners’ circle” in the new economy – a phrase Clinton has used in addressing the centrist Democratic Leadership Council – can be the theme for a host of initiatives he has announced in recent weeks or failed to enact last year. These ideas, many of which would solidify his Democratic support, include: raising the minimum wage; protecting patients’ rights in heath maintenance organizations; expanding Medicare to include the older workers most vulnerable to downsizings; preventing public schools from promoting failing students; and improving job training and retraining especially for occupations with skill shortages, such as computer professionals. And, in a shrewd attempt to finesse Republican calls for privatizing social insurance programs, Clinton may well repeat his call for using the budget surplus to shore up Social Security and Medicare, while offering working people new investment opportunities through “universal 401k’s.”

To make the case for these proposals, Clinton will need to explain that there still are serious problems that require national action. And elevating his agenda is the best case for bringing his trial to a speedy conclusion.

Yes, Clint
on should declare, as he did in Detroit, that “America is working.” But he should also insist that, particularly in preparing our people for unforgiving international competition and making sure that free trade means more than a free-fall in living standards, “America still has a job to do.”

In an irony that the “Comeback Kid” should appreciate, a State of the Union Address that avoids caution and complacency may be his best bet for becoming the “Stay Here Kid” this year and a leader with a lasting legacy for years to come.


David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for President Clinton from 1992 through 1994. He is a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute and the author of “Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties.”

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