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Battling for the Middle

PRESIDENT Clinton began his 1994 legislative drive Tuesday night with an ambitious domestic agenda and nominally in a firm political position with Congress and with the public. His approval ratings have returned to the mid-50 percent level - not spectacular, but comparable to other recent presidents at the end of their first year. His success rate with Congress last year has been surpassed by only two postwar presidents. And the economy is growing at a respectable pace, with consumer confidence continuing to rise.

His agenda - health-care reform, welfare reform, and anticrime measures - carries a subtext that will make interesting reading during this election year: the Democratic Party's drive to establish itself as a party that can govern responsibly, and reflect the views and respond to the concerns of mainstream America.

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Indeed, welfare reform and crime are two issues on which Republicans traditionally have campaigned effectively. Yet particularly on crime, the electoral playing field appears level. In a New York Times/CBS survey released last Sunday, respondents split evenly on which party is more effective against crime.

Rhetorically, the president's speech displayed Reaganesque flourishes: the use of moving anecdotes, gallery guests whose individual efforts have made a difference, reaffirmations of the important role of family, church, and other institutions in facing down societal ills. And while Senate minority leader Robert Dole of Kansas challenged the president's approach to health-care reform in his response to the State of the Union message, House minority whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia said that if Mr. Clinton's speech was sincere, the potential existed for ``a remarkable coalition that could pass a lot of stuff.''

One area that deserved more time than it got Tuesday night was foreign policy. The administration may feel that, particularly in a congressional election year, its political return is smaller on foreign policy issues than on domestic issues. Yet the state of the union is affected as much by its external relations as by its internal affairs. As the president wrapped up his final draft yesterday, Director of Central Intelligence R. James Woolsey described to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence a range of concerns: instability in Russia and North Korea's nuclear-weapons program in particular.

The record of Clinton's approach here has yet to be written.

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