STATE OF THE UNION PREVIEW
January 27, 1998
Jim Lehrer conducts a State of the Union preview with NewsHour regulars syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot, who are joined by Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.
January 27, 1998
President Clinton reflects upon the state of the union.
January 27, 1998
President Clinton discusses America's role in international affairs.
January 27, 1998
President Clinton reveals his vision of America in the 21st Century .
January 27, 1998
Senator Lott issues the Republican response.
January 22, 1998
Presidential historians discuss the State of the Union address throughout American history.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the White House.
The official homepage for the White House.
The official homepage for the Republican National Committee.
The official homepage for the Democratic National Committee.
JIM LEHRER: Now, a State of the Union preview and other analysis from syndicated columnist Mark Shields, "Wall Street Journal" columnist Paul Gigot, joined tonight by Congress watcher Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. Paul, first, on the conspiracy charge by the First Lady, do you think sheís going to be successful in changing the subject?
PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal: Well, the first thing I think you have to say is that this is a familiar strategy. Itís worked for them in the past. Accuse the accuser, attack the accuser. Itís been successful in the past. But I donít think itís going to work this time, and I donít think itís going to because it doesnít matter who was the agent that brought this story to light. The "Washington Post" happened to have broken the story in a big way, "Newsweek." Theyíre not part of any right-wing conspiracy. The "New York Times" has been critical in asking for answers; theyíre not part of any right-wing conspiracy. There are a lot of people who havenít liked the Clinton presidency, but a lot of the people who are asking the questions now are people who have liked the Clinton presidency. And I think ultimately this is one that the truth is going to set him free, or it is going to hurt him badly.
JIM LEHRER: Mark, whatís your view of this?
MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Jim, whether thereís a right-wing conspiracy, there certainly is a right-wing industry in the United States of America from the hucksters of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell pushing hate videos, charging the President involved in a murder, from the Vince Foster conspiracies promulgated on the vitriolic pages of the "American Spectator," from all that ugliness, the charges about meaner Arkansas that not only Bill Clinton, that George Bush was involved in drug dealing, I mean, this is pretty ugly, ugly stuff. Is Ken Starr a part of it? No, I donít believe so, not for a minute. I mean, Ken Starr is an established prosecutor and judge. As he becomes zealous and overzealous, weíll know that at some point, but I think in the final analysis there are powerful, very powerful forces and individuals in this country who have never accepted the legitimacy of Bill Clintonís election, who deny it, who insist that the people somehow were conned, that he obfuscated everything about it. They knew what Bill Clinton was when they elected him in 1992; they knew in 1996. But I think the final analysis--it isnít the source of the story, itís the substance of the story. And the President has to respond.
JIM LEHRER: Tonight heís going to give his State of the Union address, but the word is definitively now heís not going to mention this at all. Wise decision?
PAUL GIGOT: I think so. The word out of the White House in a briefing, I was over there today, as was Mark was. Itís not the time or the place. And I think that thatís right. This is--this is a chance for the President, frankly, to change the subject, to change the subject from him and him as a man as President to the presidency. And he wants to sell and say to the country, quite apart from these allegations about me, this has been a successful presidency. Look at the state of the country, the economy and so on, and heíd like to change the subject. So I think itís a smart decision.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, Iím not sure he wonít. I think--
JIM LEHRER: They sure said it all.
MARK SHIELDS: But the way of saying that this is not about me. This is not about me tonight. This is not about when our president--this is about the nation we all love and live in and serve and want to pass on to our children. I think Paul is right there. Bill Clinton does this very well. This is the greatest ceremonial moment of a president, of an inaugural. The State of the Union, the arrayed powers, the diplomatic corps, the cabinet, and both Houses of Congress, whoís in the galleries, and he does it well. And heís done it well--heís got two audiences tonight he has to talk to, Jim. First is the public, who are right now, according to every measurement of public opinion, think heís doing a good job and want him to stay there. Theyíre not pleased with the behavior. Theyíre perplexed. They have questions they want answered, but they think heís doing a good job; they donít want to change; and heís got to somehow reinforce their present position, and second is the Democrats because ten days ago Democrats had planned to go in, in the unified party behind a popular leader, and what he doesnít need is his party leaving.
JIM LEHRER: All right, now, Norm, one of the--he isnít going to talk about that, and the centerpiece of this tonight is supposed to be Social Security; that he is saying this, if there is a budget surplus, it should not be touched until Social Security is reformed. Explain what he wants to do that, how--what thatís all about and how the Congress is likely to respond.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: Before all these other things arose, remember a week ago what we were looking towards and talking about was what will Bill Clintonís legacy be, how will Bill Clinton go through the sixth year of his presidency and approach the first presidency, at least for a short while, as it was supposed to be, of the 21st century? And what we expected in the State of the Union message if he was up to his game, that Bill Clinton would talk about the agenda that heís laid out in the last couple of weeks and also pick an issue--the obvious one was Social Security, the entitlement questions, that would provide that kind of legacy stretch us to the 21st century and provide some kind of action plan, and now clearly that is the major focus, and itís not that heís presenting a detailed plan, or any great revelation here, but what heís suggesting is first reminding us that weíre going to have budget surpluses, saying weíve got one big issue that we need to deal with over the long-term suggesting that weíre going to have a powerful use of the bully pulpit over the course of the next year through town meetings and other things and really try and push this to the front burner of the American agenda. If he has any success in that regard overnight, thatíll have at least some modest impact on what weíll be reading about tomorrow.
JIM LEHRER: How are the Republicans likely to receive this?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, frankly, I think everybody in Congress doesnít know how to receive anything at the moment. They donít know how to react to the speech, or where weíll go. Clearly, Republicans are going to be a little bit reluctant to suggest that we should take whatever surpluses we have and apply them anywhere at this point, other than to perhaps drawing down the debt. Now, it may very well be that drawing down the national debt would be the best place, since Social Security is a significant part of it, to preserve the program. But I suspect Republicans are also going to welcome the Presidentís call to grapple with Social Security better sooner than later, if we ever get to discussion on this subject in the course of the next week or so.
JIM LEHRER: Iím determined weíre going to talk about it here, a few minutes here.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Thank you.
JIM LEHRER: How do you read the politics of the Social Security proposal, the other things that go with that?
PAUL GIGOT: It is something of a long pass. Thereís no question about it. But I think itís going to be received--
JIM LEHRER: Thatís a football analogy, right?
PAUL GIGOT: Thatís a football analogy, which I am loathe to mention since the--
JIM LEHRER: Ladies and gentlemen, this man is from Green Bay, Wisconsin.
PAUL GIGOT: But I think itís going to be received warily by both parties. I think Republicans have been burned on entitlements--Medicare by this President--and theyíre going to worry about that heís setting a trap, and that heís trying to prevent them from trying to cut taxes this year. The Democrats are also going to be a bit wary because a lot of them want no changes in Social Security. They view it as an inviolable program, which covers all people, and that if you open it up, you could get some ideas that they donít like, for example, individual retirement accounts, that Bob Kerrey, the Nebraska Democrat has proposed. So I think itís going to--he has a very hard job with both parties. Heís opening up a real big political issue.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?
MARK SHIELDS: Itís a big political issue. Itís a bold political move. Itís--
JIM LEHRER: Bold, why is it bold?
MARK SHIELDS: Itís bold because you are addressing what has been commonly known as--of American politics, the subway turn, third rail is full of electricity, and it is fatal to get anywhere near it.
JIM LEHRER: For those of us who donít have subways--
MARK SHIELDS: For those of us who donít travel in subways, but we in Washington do. And that he is confronting it, and Paul put his finger on Republicans want to cut taxes, Democrats want to initiate and expand programs, and heís saying no to both sides. It is the kind of idea that presidents do come up with in the third year of their second term when theyíre thinking about history.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Jim, one thing that will work to his advantage here, there are a lot of outside groups gearing up to put Social Security on the front burner anyhow. Heís reportedly going to do some of these meetings in conjunction with the Concord Coalition, which had pushed for budget discipline and now is going to move beyond that. Thereís a major effort funded by the Pew Charitable Trust called Americans Discuss Social Security thatís going to be out there holding forums around the country anyhow and doing ads of different sorts. Weíve got the retired people--the AARP, the American Association of Retired Persons--that wants to focus on this. So there are a lot of people out there who believe itís the right to focus on Social Security. And he might--if he we can get past this weekís events--catch the wave.
JIM LEHRER: Speaking--back to this weekís events, the focus tonight--heís got a major problem. Youíre suggesting that really nobody is going to be listening to really the words; theyíre only going to be watching the expressions and the mood and all of that sort of stuff.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, Iím afraid that although we have seen Bill Clinton in the past be able to transcend pressures on him and give a tremendous speech and a dynamite speech, but itís going to be very, very hard to go beyond whether he has the right demeanor or the right delivery to focus on the substance. And what a week ago looked like a tremendous opportunity for the President, a really important State of the Union message where he was already beginning to dominate the policy agenda. He filled a vacuum with Congress--
JIM LEHRER: These daily announcements he was making.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: The daily announcements, those were the dominant news. Now, heís filling a vacuum in a different way, and I suspect that no matter what we are not going to be able to pass this firestorm to put these issues out there and have them be the subject for discussion for a while.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?
PAUL GIGOT: I sure do. The presidency is a constitutionally weak office on domestic affairs in peacetime. It depends on the power to persuade, which relies upon the moral authority of the persuader, and this Presidentís moral authority and judgment is called into question right now.
MARK SHIELDS: Paul, there is also the perception of power. If a week from today or 24 hours from today people on Capitol Hill think he is popular and has power and the American people think heís doing a good job as President, then he is enhanced his position and perhaps stanched the hemorrhaging, at least temporarily.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Well, look, thank you all three very much. And Mike, Paul, and Norm, weíll return later tonight on most PBS stations as part of our State of the Union coverage.