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Statecraft From Under a Cloud

Clinton gives annual address tonight amid rising doubt about his ability to lead.

President Clinton's State of the Union speech tonight will be a mirage of normality.

When he steps to the podium in the House of Representatives for one of the most watched addresses in history, the assembled lawmakers will applaud politely, if not enthusiastically. The president will speak for about an hour about Social Security, Medicare, day care, and the future of the nation at the turn of the millennium.

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But, in a way, it will all be David Copperfield - illusionary.

For at this extraordinary moment in the nation's history, the president has lost much of his authority - at least for now. His formal powers are intact, but his informal powers - the ability to establish the policy agenda and to set a moral tone - are seriously compromised as he fights allegations that he had a sexual relationship with a White House intern and urged her to lie about it.

"It may be one of the most surreal State of the Union addresses we have ever seen," says Doug Hoekstra, a political analyst at Michigan State University.

Ironically, the president may reach a much wider audience than he normally would for a State of the Union address, as viewers tune in to see if he makes any reference to the sex scandal.

"Whatever he does say will be interpreted through the lens of the charges surrounding the intern," says George Edwards, a presidential expert at Texas A&M University in College Station.

At a public appearance yesterday, the president gave his most emphatic statement yet on the scandal, saying "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. [Monica] Lewinsky."

As the new week dawned, top White House aides continued to maintain that the president is focused on his speech and has successfully "compartmentalized" the allegations. "He is not distracted," says White House communications director Ann Lewis, who has worked with the president in three hour-long sessions preparing for tonight's address. "He has the ability to box things off. He is staying very focused on his policies."

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Still, other White House staff report a never-before-seen level of distraction. "It's scary," says a source, recounting an episode from last Friday, when a frustrated Clinton spent time in the Oval Office playing with his dog, Buddy.

White House sources say the scene illustrates a disturbing level of diversion from the affairs of state - including a brewing crisis with Iraq, in which the United States is believed to be considering a military strike. The demoralization among staff only worsened over the weekend, sources say - and became serious enough that Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles sought to rally senior officials at a meeting yesterday morning.

From Capitol Hill, one Democratic aide reports that lawmakers are nervous, as they were in 1994 when the party lost control of Congress in the midterm elections. "They're worried he [Clinton] has become too much of a liability," says the aide. "It's difficult to tell what's really going on."

Indeed, from the Democrats' point of view, they appear to be in a no-win situation. If Clinton survives and holds on to the presidency, he remains a wounded figure, his ability to help party members with their initiatives and election campaigns greatly diminished. If Clinton ends up leaving office, the party will be stained, as the GOP was when President Nixon resigned in 1974.

The GOP leadership has elected to take the high ground - following the old political adage that when your opponent is self-destructing, you step aside and let events take their course. Almost aggressively, GOP leaders have tried to steer discussion to policy issues, trumpeting their calls for tax reform, chiding the president for his own policy proposals, and criticizing him, for example, for not proposing an elimination of the marriage tax penalty.

AGAIN, the mirage of normality returns when political leaders try to talk policy - the predictable thing to do before just about any other State of the Union speech.

The White House, too, has gamely tried to follow its old playbook, even after the intern scandal exploded last week. Administration officials continued to release details of initiatives the president will announce in tonight's speech: Last week it was pension reform, over the weekend it was a plan to spend some of the expected budget surplus on fixing the Social Security system, which will begin running short of money in about 2010.

Up until last week's scandalous allegations rocked the nation, the White House was on top of its game, doling out proposals bit by bit and dominating the policy debate. Now, as the ideas continue to churn out, the proposals strike many as hollow.

Some observers caution against making too much of the long-term impact of Clinton's troubles. The nation has suffered presidential calamities before and has survived - and eventually thrived. "We had a weakened presidency after Watergate during the 1970s," notes presidential scholar Tom Cronin, president of Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. "But Ronald Reagan was able to turn it around and make that institution hum again. There's a resiliency in this institution."

Mr. Cronin also expects Clinton to "do a pretty good job" delivering his speech tonight, judging by past performances and his skill as a communicator. "He's quite good at State of the Union addresses; he's as good as any president at that," says Cronin. "He's got to be careful about some of the lines he talks about, any calls for moral leadership. He risks snickering. But he's a tough guy. He's had five or six lives already. He may have a few more."

* Staff writer Alexandra Marks contributed to this report.

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