The summons was stirring, a call to action. The mission grand, “a challenge as great as any in our peacetime history.” The moment propitious, 1,000 days to the new millennium. In his State of the Union address, President Clinton appeared at the height of his popularity, his mandate fresh, his opponents in disarray. Then he revealed that beneath the Superman candidate is a Clark Kent president.
The president has chosen to write boldly across his time in disappearing ink. Even in this era of virtual reality, seldom have we witnessed such a yawning divide between word and deed. Take education, Clinton’s signature focus. Education is the life raft he offers workers buffeted by the choppy currents of the global economy. He calls it a “critical national security issue, the greatest step of all, the high threshold to the future, my No. 1 priority.”
When great presidents have summoned the country to meet great challenges, they have offered programs commensurate with the size of the problem. When Harry Truman called the nation to rebuild Europe at the end of World War II, he put forth the Marshall Plan, which devoted 2% of the nation’s gross national product annually to that effort, the equivalent of about $140 billion a year in today’s dollars. When Dwight Eisenhower decided to make America’s transportation the most efficient in the world, he signed off on the greatest infrastructure project in history, pumping tens of billions a year into building and repairing the nation’s roads. When Ronald Reagan launched the last round of the Cold War, he doubled the military budget in less than four years, an extra $150 billion a year.
But when Clinton calls the country to meet the challenge of ensuring that “all Americans have the best education in the world,” he cobbles together programs that cost about $11 billion a year--seven-tenths of 1% of projected federal spending--thus proving his own line that “nothing big ever came from being small.”
The president warns that students are going to schools that are “literally falling down.” The GAO estimates that it would cost $112 billion to bring schools into reasonable repair. Clinton offers $1 billion a year over five years to help school districts defray interest on loans.
College grows ever less affordable. The president offers a package of tax breaks and “the largest increase in Pell Grant scholarships in 20 years.” But the tax breaks benefit the affluent more than the hard pressed, and the increase in scholarships fails even to make up for the ground lost over the past 20 years.
Workers face a world in which they must continue to learn new skills across a lifetime. The president offers a “GI Bill for America’s workers” to provide vouchers for training. But the original GI Bill provided the income support that enabled a generation of veterans to go to college. The president offers partial support for training for some workers, but no income support. Parents already working record hours to make ends meet must take courses at night or draw on savings, which few have.
What Jonathan Kozol called the “savage inequality” of public school funding is a disgrace. The children of affluent suburbs are provided a first class education, while those of working class suburbs or inner city ghettos who need the most help get the least. The president proposes charter schools to give “parents the right to choose the right public school,” promising to “help create” 3,000 charter schools--in a nation with 80,000 public schools--by 2000.
The gap between promise and program is even worse in other areas. Having repealed welfare, Clinton proposes to ensure there is work by exhorting businesses to hire poor mothers. One in five workers has no health insurance. Those who do increasingly are at the mercy of HMOs in which insurance company clerks tell doctors what they can prescribe. In response, Clinton seems intent on guaranteeing decent health care--one organ, one disease at a time. Last year, it was ensuring that mothers giving birth could stay in a hospital for a night or two. This year, the guarantee is extended to women having mastectomies. No wonder the president summons in the new millennium. It may take that long to achieve universal affordable health care.
In his study of the beginning of Clinton’s first administration, Bob Woodward described a scene in which the president suddenly realizes that deficit reduction and an unwillingness to take on the Pentagon would disembowel the “Putting People First” agenda that he ran on and leave him an “Eisenhower” budget. Now it’s clear that characterization was incomplete. It’s Eisenhower all right--only without the highway program.