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Clinton Pushes Ambitious Plans Amid Signs of Economic Strength

TOMORROW, economists expect to hear from the Commerce Department that the last quarter of the past year clocked economic growth at a boom-paced annual rate of 6 percent.

Into an atmosphere of guarded confidence in the recovery, President Clinton is urging on the nation the most ambitious policy agenda in over half a century.

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He finally settled the question Tuesday evening of whether he would put off welfare reform while working health-care reform through Congress. He will introduce his welfare makeover bill this spring, about the time the White House hopes its health-care bill will be clearing congressional committees.

To move this heavy agenda forward this year, Mr. Clinton must walk a tightrope of sorts.

He must promote the confidence in government and in his own leadership that economic recovery bolsters against a backdrop of pervasive cynicism about politics and politicians. Yet he must also sustain the urgency of crisis, especially about the health-care system, to motivate action.

This is the note he hit in the summing-up line of his State of the Union address Tuesday night: ``It is growing stronger, but it must be stronger still.''

The address was only the third prime-time, televised speech Clinton has made as president, and aides saw it as the first time he would draw together his agenda in full before a national audience. His first two addresses, in February and September 1993, dealt primarily with his first budget and health care, respectively.

For most Americans, it was the first time they had heard Clinton lay out his views on the recovering economy - something every president wants most to be associated with.

He could point to a new estimate of the federal deficit for this year that is 40 percent lower than the forecasts a year ago. He could point out low interest rates and low inflation and the creation of more jobs in the past year than in the previous four years combined. He could argue that if Congress passes the budget he will propose in about a week, the deficit would decrease three years in a row for the first time since Harry S. Truman was president.

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He did not point out that most economists are forecasting much slower growth during the current quarter, largely due to higher taxes and government spending cuts taking effect under the Clinton budget.

The State of the Union address was also the first chance most Americans had to hear Clinton make his full case against the current welfare system and inveigh against the ``stunning, simultaneous breakdown'' of community, family, and work in many American neighborhoods. This subject inspires the president's most impassioned rhetoric and gives him a chance to appeal to middle-class American values with compassion, tough talk about personal responsibility, and an acknowledgment that ``our problems go beyond the reach of government.''

Many of the tougher questions in the administration's welfare overhaul plan are still unanswered, such as how to find or create jobs for welfare recipients when their proposed two-year time limit on the dole runs out.

Judging by Republican reviews and instant post-speech polls, Clinton's pitch was probably his best-received prime-time speech yet.

But the partisan edges to his agenda are apparent, especially on the issue at the center of action this coming year - health care. Virtually all Republicans and a healthy minority of Democrats in Congress see the Clinton health-care plan as overly heavy on government regulation. A second major concern of conservatives is that Clinton's spending cuts are concentrated too heavily on defense, putting national security at risk.

In the days approaching his address, Clinton spent much of his personal attention on sharpening a couple of points in the text on health care.

He wanted to directly confront a view that has gained ground in recent months, that any health-care crisis is resolving itself as medical cost inflation has now dropped to the lowest level in 20 years.

Clinton cited the financial hardships of the current system, such as the cases of families facing bankruptcy because medical emergencies occurred when they were between jobs and, hence, between insurance policies.

``So if any of you believe there's no crisis, tell it to those people, because I can't,'' he told the joint session of Congress on Tuesday night.

Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas, the minority leader, did. In the Republican rebuttal to Clinton's address, he acknowledged a health-care problem, but not a crisis. He argued instead that Clinton's radical overhaul of the system would create a crisis by putting ``a mountain of bureaucrats between you and your doctor.''

Clinton gave most of his personal attention in preparing his speech to making a connection between his health-care and welfare proposals.

His health-care plan, by guaranteeing comprehensive insurance to everybody, is actually a major step in moving people off the welfare rolls, he argues. The leading reason that welfare recipients who have found work slide back onto welfare, White House aides say, is that they need the health insurance provided to the poor by Medicaid.

The White House has been working on drafting Tuesday's speech since before Christmas. By Tuesday afternoon, the text had been through at least 10 drafts.

Clinton spent a couple of hours at the White House residence Monday night penciling in his own edits and additions.

He spent much of Tuesday morning in the White House family theater, reading the speech aloud to a changing cast of aides and advisers while discussing and editing it.

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