Basically, President Clinton got it right in his State of the Union message Thursday night. A nation in the midst of widespread prosperity at home and without a significant threat from abroad can afford to cover the uninsured, improve education for the poor and make sure older Americans don't have to go without medical care and prescription drugs.
This was a message from a president who believes in government. We don't fully share his vision of a government that can do everything for everybody, but these are times that have produced unprecedented wealth, and to use that bounty only to make the rich richer would betray the basic decency of the American people.
The president offered programs in just about every phase of life, including: helping people pay for child care, lifting all children out of poverty, helping parents pay for college, repairing and rebuilding thousands of schools a year, adding another billion dollars to Head Start, spending $4.5 billion to double spending for after-school and summer school programs, raising the minium wage, initiating gun control measures and dozens of other initiatives. His targeted tax cuts would cost about $350 billion over the next decade.
And all of this, he said, would be done while paying off the national debt and putting Medicare and Social Security on a solid fiscal basis. That should be the strong foundation on which his entire program is based.
A Republican Congress, which doesn't want to be labeled "do nothing" by Democrats in the upcoming election season, may be more amenable than earlier Congresses to work with the president. But even that's not a certainty. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, commenting even before the speech was delivered, said, "If we enacted all the new programs the president has talked about, we'd spend just about the entire surplus."
This was a speech about a legacy as much as it was about an agenda. It came from a president who thinks government can truly "build the more-perfect union of our founders' dreams." If Clinton had been serious about setting a realistic agenda, he would have made some effort to prioritize.
Perhaps the strongest sign that this was a speech about his place in history was the numerous references to Vice President Gore. Nothing would validate his record more than the election of his vice president.
In short, the president returned to the theme he used when he started out in his presidency. "I believe government must do more," Clinton said in 1993. Seven years later, he was delivering the same message.