Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Statecraft from under a Cloud Clinton Gives Annual Address Tonight amid Rising Doubt about His Ability to Lead

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Statecraft from under a Cloud Clinton Gives Annual Address Tonight amid Rising Doubt about His Ability to Lead

Article excerpt

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.

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." 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. …

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