Clinton's State of the Union (posted January 28, 2000)

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With the Clinton presidency coming to an end, last night's State of the Union address provided the chief executive with a chance to claim credit for the record prosperity and seek to define the scope of his official legacy. The evening represented a dramatic turnaround from past speeches. In 1993, he threw down the challenge to Congress to pass universal health care only to be rebuffed and suffer the humiliation of having his party lose control of the House and Senate in 1994. In 1996, he proclaimed that it was time to end welfare. Last year, he spoke under the cloud of his impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives.

This year, the tone was completely different, in recognition of the fact that his political situation had changed markedly. Not only did he survive the Senate trial, his presidency is concluding with record budget surpluses and the longest period of economic expansion in the nation's history. He took advantage of that fact to promise both a major tax cut and a dozen new spending initiatives on areas from a tax deduction for up to $10,000 of college tuition to new school renovation projects.

The speech was vintage Clinton: long, well-delivered, and not very detailed about how he would handle some of the major issues. In some respects, he played to his Democratic base, pitching popular ideas within his party such as a patient's bill of rights and new gun licensing requirements. At other times, he sought to reach out to the GOP by promising support for a higher tax deduction to ease the so-called marriage penalty for two-income families.

When his presidency ends, his major policy legacy will be three-fold: taking steps that boosted the nation's economic prosperity, repositioning his party more in the center than it previously had been (the triumph of New Democrats over Old Democrats), and balancing the budget for the first time since 1969. Its low points will be the 1998 House impeachment and the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress.