We have heard President Clinton's views on the State of the Union: The Era of Big Government is Over. But, he said, with educational opportunity, economic security and freedom from crime, Americans can make the most of a new Age of Possibility.

The times are changing and nobody can change faster than William Jefferson Clinton. The reviews of his speech, which co-opted much of the Republican rhetoric on limiting government, generally were good. But he probably has gotten more mileage out of standing for principles against the Republican budget gougers.

Still, people at large are distressed at the state of the union. Middle-class workers who used to read about manufacturing layoffs and farm failures now are losing their jobs. Industrial mainstays such as IBM and AT&T are trimming tens of thousands of people from their workforces, sacrificing long-term growth for short-term profits. Middle America is in economic quicksand even as the economy is said to be recovering. And the blue-collar workers and farmers who have already been through the troubles can take little consolation that the malaise is spreading.

The old social contract--the deal that employers would take care of their workers and reinvest profits--appears to be broken. Instead, corporate executives respond to shareholders' demands for higher dividends on their stock. Shareholders in turn reward the executives while the workload is redistributed among the remaining workers. Economic security is gone. People see fundamental changes taking place in American life. They wonder whether they have any control over where these changes will lead. They are frustrated that the government has not made more progress on their concerns.

Those are some of the findings of "America's Struggle Within," a report of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, prepared by Richard C. Harwood, whose public issues research firm conducted focus group discussions with a cross-section of Americans in 15 cities across the nation in September 1995.

Harwood, speaking to a conference of journalists in conjunction with the National Issues Convention this past month in Austin, found that the public is deeply concerned about the future of the nation. Values seem out of sync. Social rules seem up for grabs. People question the relationships between themselves and public institutions, such as government, the news media and civic organizations. But, unlike the mood in 1992, when his firm found the public was lashing out at politics and politicians, Harwood said the American public today is more introspective and contemplative.

People see two fundamental challenges, he said.

First, the economy is unraveling before them. People have a feeling they are in "economic quicksand." And there is a strong belief that the rules that drive the economy are grossly unfair.

Corporations lay off workers, slash health care benefits and turn to temporary employees who are hired without benefits at the same time corporate profits and dividends are up and executives are increasing their own salaries and perks. "A lot of big companies--they cut back," a Jacksonville woman was quoted. "What do they hire? Part-timers, no benefits."

And the tax system is constructed so that it seems the more you make, the less you pay. But while the people bristle at talk of increasing taxes, neither do they want to cut government spending, being inherently suspicious that they will be "had" once again. "They always cut at the bottom, they never cut at the top," a Los Angeles man was quoted saying.

Families and values are another fundamental challenge in people's minds, but Harwood adds, "What they see is fundamentally different from what the politicians and the media are talking about when they use those terms."

They're not talking about flag burning, school prayer or the failure to attend church, he said. "What you hear about is people wrestling with a way of life that's being shredded. As parents try to keep pace with an economy that's moving away from them, they're not at home with their children. ... 'I have to work twice as hard to get by' is how a San Diego woman summed up her feelings about the current economy."

Some of the questions on people's minds include: What is the definition of the American dream?

What will replace the old social contract between workers and employers?

What does it mean for sacrifices to be spread fairly and equitably?

How does society help those truly in need?

How do we balance the role of responsibility between government and citizen to act in a democratic society?

These are questions that deserve a thoughtful, democratic conversation, not a war of 15-second sound bites.

"People believe there are all sorts of new realities," Harwood said. "The public is away ahead of the politicians on that. Americans aren't looking to return to the bygone days of the 1950s. But they're trying to reach back into history and bring back the enduring values that built this country and made it great."

The public also is more thoughtful and/or ambivalent about issues than politicians give them credit for. "Our society is conflict-ridden and people believe too much coverage reflects that. They feel that polls force people into corners way before people have a chance to think the issues through.

In the case of welfare reform, he said, the public debate is framed as a choice of kicking moms off welfare after two years or letting them stay on forever. Instead, most people want to nurture single parents, while holding them accountable. But polls seldom list that option.

Politicians can tap into the people's frustration, as the Republican Contract with America attempted to do, but frustration is something people want to leave behind. Harwood found that people are looking for leaders who

Truly understand how Americans live;

Articulate a clear vision;

Stick by their convictions;

Have the guts to tell it like it is;

Follow through and show results; and

Expect respect, not re-election.

The group discussions showed emphatically that people believed the use of most town meetings, focus groups, fax polls and other media to gauge the public's attitudes was a hoax. Many argued that politicians used polling to manipulate the public and to buttress their positions.

Participants in the focus groups at least were willing to share the blame. "We get the government we deserve," said a Des Moines man. "People should get involved," said a Tallahassee woman. "You can't fight a battle from outside."

The bottom line: We must take voting seriously. We must start to work together. We must believe in ourselves again. And we must recognize that nothing will be easy or quick.

Whitewater or Tidal Waves?

With Hillary Clinton being called to testify before a federal grand jury in connection with the Whitewater investigation and congressional committees continuing to make hay of Bill and Hillary Clinton's financial dealings back in Arkansas, Republican friends have been calling and wondering when the Progressive Populist would weigh in against the First Family's ethical lapses.

Like much of the country, we're not sure what to believe about the sordid affair. But we're not sure whether we should be more disturbed by the handling of the Clintons' investments when they were in Arkansas, their alleged coverup of those dealings in the White House or the selective investigation by Republicans in Congress that has grown increasingly partisan and hypocritical as time goes on.

Sen. Alphonse D'Amato, the ethically challenged banking chairman whose Senate mandate to investigate Whitewater expires at the end of February, wants an extension of time and money for his committee to rake the Clintons and their aides over the coals well into the presidential campaign. But after spending nearly $1 million and a year on the probe he should get to the point and let special prosecutor Kenneth Starr pursue any criminal cases.

We would rather give the time and money to House banking committee chairman Jim Leach of Iowa, an investigator with more integrity than D'Amato, to put it lightly. In addition to Whitewater, Leach is probing drug running and money laundering out of Mena, Ark. His investigation, which Starr reportedly is keeping hands off, is politically sensitive because it involves alleged cover-ups not only by state and local authorities, but also the national administrations of Reagan and Bush, the CIA, Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Attorney's office.

Sam Smith, editor of the Progressive Review in Washington, D.C., predicts that Clinton will end up not running for re-election, due to the Whitewater scandal. "If things go well for Clinton, he may emulate LBJ and Truman and announce his decision in late March. If the current drip-drip-drip of revelations turn into a torrent, it may happen sooner," Smith writes.

We don't believe Clinton will bow out, at least based upon the details that have come out so far, and no Democratic challenger has come forward. Still, Starr has plenty of time to squeeze potential witnesses before the election. At this point, with Clinton co-opting much of the Republicans' rhetoric and GOP frontrunner Bob Dole looking like an "embalmed undertaker"--to use Jesse Jackson's apt phrase--an indictment of one or both of the Clintons may be the GOP's best. -- JIM CULLEN, Editor

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