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Clinton Gives New Plans, Job Ratings a Public Trial

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Taking his agenda on the road, President Clinton on Wednesday made the case that his newly unveiled initiatives to increase retirement security will help the young as well as the elderly.

“The aging of America affects everybody,” he said. But after a year in which the president assiduously avoided large public events because of the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal, Clinton’s traditional day-after State of the Union foray into America seemed as much about giving him a chance to bask in the support of a cheering public as it was about pitching programs.

Instead of quickly shushing the crowd as he often does, Clinton stood for several minutes enjoying the standing ovation of more than 20,000 people who waved flags and cheered in the arena of Buffalo’s hockey team.

The president then tried to explain why he wants to use much of the government’s projected budget surplus to bolster the Social Security retirement fund and Medicare health insurance.

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Hints of Dissent on Lack of Tax Cut

But the reaction of the crowd offered an instant preview of the battle the president faces in trying to persuade Republicans in Congress--who advocate using the surplus to give Americans a 10% across-the-board tax cut--to adopt his plan.

Clinton rhetorically asked what the government should do with the surplus.

“We could give it all back to you and hope you spend it right,” he said, provoking energetic applause from some in the audience.

Not deterred, Clinton then stressed that the money would be better spent his way: guaranteeing retirement income and health care coverage for the expanding number of older Americans as baby boomers and following generations retire.

“You’re going to have everybody say that government doesn’t know how to spend this money,” Clinton said. “Look, folks, Social Security and Medicare work.”

Unlike the several speakers who preceded him, including Vice President Al Gore, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and local political leaders, Clinton chose to focus on policy. By the time he began to speak, the crowd already was starting to disperse. As he made his argument for Social Security, a steady stream of people was heading for the doors.

“I’m sorry if I made the atmosphere too serious,” Clinton said, as if appealing to the fleeing New Yorkers. “But I want you to think about this. We cannot afford to squander this moment.”

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Although Clinton’s lawyers were engaged in presenting the second day of his defense to the Senate, he never directly commented on the trial or his impeachment by the House a month ago.

He did, however, relish a comparison that Gore made between the president and Buffalo Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek.

“I just wish one day they would give me a mask and a few pads when I dodge that stuff,” Clinton said with a chuckle.

The president also told the crowd that Wednesday was the sixth anniversary of his first inauguration.

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“It seems impossible to me that those six years have flown by,” Clinton said. “They have been, to put it mildly, quite eventful.”

Impeachment Was Hardly Forgotten

Even though no one mentioned the trial from the podium, it was clearly on the minds of many who crowded into the arena to get a look at the president.

Rick Sweeney, 26, a social studies teacher who accompanied the eighth-grade class from Lewiston-Porter Middle School, said the president’s misdeeds and the congressional impeachment process have been a central topic in his classes over the last year. And he has come to an uncomfortable conclusion about what he would do if he were a senator.

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“I’d probably vote for impeachment, even though I don’t think it would be in the best interests of the country,” said Sweeney, who rode with the children from Youngstown, about 40 minutes away and just north of Niagara Falls. “Based on what the law says, he should be convicted. No one should be above the law.”

Sweeney’s views were eagerly debated by his students.

Kaitlyn Adelizi, 13, and her friend Amber Chilberg, 15, said they believe Clinton should be removed.

“I think he should be kicked out because of the whole Monica thing and because he lied about it,” Kaitlyn said. “If he admitted it, maybe he could stay.”

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“I agree,” Amber chimed in. “He’s supposed to be our president and set an example for us. He let us down.”

They both said that the country would be better off if Gore took over.

But Jennelle Wyno, 13, disagreed: “I think he’s a great guy. We all make mistakes. God forgives us for mistakes. We should forgive each other.”

Zack Caterina, 13, blamed the trouble on Lewinsky. “I think Monica Lewinsky just wanted her 15 minutes of fame. They’re up. It feels like she’s had five years of it already.

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“A lot of people have had affairs. Just because he’s president, they’re taking it too serious.”

A teacher sitting a row ahead of him corrected him: “Serious-ly.” Zack added: “Make sure you include the ly.”

The adults in the audience seemed more inclined to forgive the president--those who want him convicted stayed away--saying they like his policies and his charisma.

The thousands of people who flocked to see the president on a workday seemed thrilled by his visit, and not just because it gave them something to do besides shoveling snow. The city was deluged by more than 50 inches the first two weeks of the year, and shoulder-high mounds of snow line the streets downtown.

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Debbie Miles, 44, who has Crohn’s disease and receives Social Security benefits because of her disability, said she was moved when she heard Clinton announce that he would try to ensure that people on disability could keep their health insurance if they go back to work.

“I had tears in my eyes. They were rolling right down my face,” she said. “I want to go back to work, but I’m afraid I’d lose my health benefits. I loved the speech. We sat there for an hour and a half, rapt.”

Inside the arena, Jon Boyd, 51, a Teamster who works on the loading docks and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War, was interested in hearing more about Clinton’s ideas for guaranteeing adequate retirements for baby boomers.

“I think he’s done an excellent job. And as far as things going on now, I think it’s ridiculous,” he said. “It’s all about politics. Anyone with common sense can see that.”

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Boyd said he has been impressed that the president seems not to be distracted by either his personal wrongdoings or the resulting impeachment process.

“What he did in his private life has not hindered his policies. He has not missed a step,” Boyd said.

The minister who gave the invocation for the midday rally gave an even more ringing endorsement of the chief executive.

“You have been the greatest president for our people of all time,” the Rev. Bennett Smith said.

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Clinton said the tribute was something “I’ll remember all my life.”

Wednesday evening, Clinton and his entourage made another stop in suburban Philadelphia before heading back to Washington. The president told a gymnasium full of students and parents at Norristown Area High School that, despite all his troubles, he still loves his job.

“I’m not looking forward to two years from now, being barred from being president by the Constitution’s two-term limit,” Clinton said, in a subtle indication that he thinks he will not be convicted by the Senate.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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Presidential Job Approval

President Clinton’s already strong job approval rating rose after Tuesday’s State of the Union address.

ABC NEWS

Approve

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1999

Now: 66%

1/13: 63%

Approve

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Nov. 1998: 65%

Aug. 1998: 60%

****

Disapprove

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1999

Now: 32%

1/13: 34%

Nov. 1998: 33%

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Aug. 1998: 38%

****

CBS NEWS

Approve

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1999

Now: 72%

1/13: 67%

****

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Disapprove

1999: 27%

1/13: 30%

****

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NBC NEWS

1999

Approve: 76%

Disapprove: 22%

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Note: Margin of error +/- 4% for CBS and NBC polls and +/- 4.5% for ABC poll.

Sources: ABC News; CBS News; NBC News


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