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The (Demographic) State of the Union

Analysts seldom note just how much of the Clinton agenda is driven by baby boom demographics.

The president's next to last State of the Union address, shorn of its impeachment-defying drama, provides an instructive reminder of that population tide's continuing impact.

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Look at the highlights:

There is, of course, a repeat of last year's great boomer rallying cry: save "Social Security first." Then there are bows to the concerns of a generation now worrying about the cost of care for parents and the failure to provide adequate educational standards for "echo boom" children. The decline of teaching standards is, in part, a result of the neglect of teacher-college quality in the standard-lowering 1970s.

President Clinton's call for still more police funding is a throwback to another result of the population boom: the crime bulge caused earlier by looser moral codes, broken families, and youth joblessness. That phase of the population surge is long past - witness dramatically falling city crime rates. But voter fears have not yet abated. And the White House agenda is poll-driven.

Freer global trade - an on-again-off-again Clinton goal - plays an absolutely essential role in keeping the job-producing, low-inflation, rising-wage economy going. Without such supports, the budget surpluses that make Mr. Clinton's agenda viable would soon become shaky.

The president's call for a rise in military funding reflects three factors: (1) The cost of sustaining America's world position. (Neither Balkan nor Iraqi policing, for example, has been as low-cost or quickly ended as Clinton hoped). (2) Concern over retaliatory terrorism. (3) Concern about his own culture clash with the military. Recent attention to the heroism and character of the World War II generation is subtly shaping today's outlook.

Modern State of the Union messages float on a simple formula: The president proposes; Congress disposes. Recently, even when a Republican Congress proposes, Clinton has adroitly lassoed popular agenda items and put his brand on them.

This year Republicans agree on many basic themes: education reform, defense, Social Security rescue, crime and drug action - plus a tax cut.

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The president would be wise to meet them half way on these items. And they ought to respond in kind.

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