Monday, January 30, 2006

The State of the Union Speech: A Plea for Less Mustard and More Meat

When President George Walker Bush steps up to the Tele-Prompter at the podium in the well of the House of Representatives on Tuesday night to deliver the annual State of the Union speech, he will be greeted by the usual ovation, albeit one more warmly delivered by Republicans than Democrats. He will flash his famous smirk-smile, nod his approval at this outpouring of affection-politeness and wave to the visitor’s gallery with its usual
agglomeration of social bigs and war heroes and widows, and smattering of little folk who believe their lives have been changed for the better because of him.

But when the applause fades and Bush gets down to business, his speech is likely to be a mere echo of the ones that he has given over the past five years, let alone the January 2005 edition.

That was when the swashbuckler from Crawford, Texas, seemed to be flush with political capital from an election that he actually had won outright. He was full of big and bold ideas that would carry him through a second term and deus ex machina into the history books and everlasting greatness despite the wars, pestilence and filibusters littering his path.

By almost any measure, including the fact that second-term presidents historically encounter problems to which they have to give little mind to during their first four years, the last 12 months have been a disaster for Bush, and his speech will be an oblique acknowledgement of that.


Before I plunge on and then give Country Bumpkin his turn in the post immediately below this one, it seems fair to first ask two interrelated questions:

How much of what has happened in the past year cannot be fairly laid at George Bush’s feet? And how much can? In other words, to what extent is the state of the union as of January 31, 2006, a result of George Bush being president of the United States?

The answer is, um . . . complicated, but not very forgiving of the man who will occupy the Oval Office for three more years.

Bush did not cause Hurricane Katrina, but his administration was responsible for a belated and then hugely bungled response to the disaster that put the lie to the notion that it was adequately preparing the homeland for another event on the scale of 9/11. The president paid dearly in post-Katrina public opinion polls that already showed a majority of Americans were unhappy with the job he was doing and no longer trusted him. His trustworthiness numbers have slipped further still because of the myriad Republican corruption scandals.

Gasoline and home heating oil prices spiked in Katrina's wake, but neither Bush nor any other president bears direct responsibility -- or for that matter can do much about -- a fickle petroleum market that is now increasingly driven by the energy-hungry Chinese and Indian economic behemoths. All that said, the Bush administration's resistance to a broad-based national energy initiative based on renewable resources that might ease dependence on foreign sources of oil and refusal to join in the global warming dialogue has become asinine.

Despite Katrina, the economy has more or less righted itself after several years of stagnation caused only indirectly by Bush administration economic policies

The president can take little credit for this quasi recovery, and while his tax cuts did pour money into the economy, his overall policies have been predicated on borrowing from the future. (Aesop's grasshopper can tell you what will happen when you do that.) And, as one would expect from an administration that pays little more than lip service to the nation's soft underbelly, the gap between rich and poor has accelerated, in part because the tax cuts were hugely weighted to the affluent, while the level of poverty has shot back up after receding through the 1990s.

The Mideast remains the most troubling international hotspot. Bush is not responsible for Iran's bellicosity, Syria's bad behavior in Lebanon or the emergence of Hamas as the governing power in Palestine any more than he caused Ariel Sharon's strokes, but the stability of the region certainly has been further undermined by his war in Iraq.


It used to be axiomatic that domestic affairs would come before international affairs in any sum-up of a presidency, but given the world in which we live today, that notion seems quaint.

Nearly three years after the U.S.-led invasion, it is obvious that the war in Iraq is playing Bush and not the other way around.

Events on the ground are substantially out of the president’s control. This includes the drumbeat of U.S. casualties and flirtation with civil war among the competing Iraqi factions. The administration has walked away from its "Marshall Plan" for rebuilding the war-ravaged country, large swaths of which are controlled by insurgents and violent sectarian militias as the third anniversary of the president's infamously embarrassing "Mission Accomplished" declaration creeps closer. So, there is nothing big and bold that he can say in his speech, certainly not articulating a coherent strategy for getting U.S. troops the hell out.

Bush has repeatedly tried to link Iraq to the 9/11 attacks, but as we move further and further away from that awful day, a connection that was bogus to begin with becomes flimsier still.

Osama bin Laden has conveniently come out of his cave long enough to remind us that he’s still alive and continues to elude U.S. efforts to bring him down that have been compromised by the Iraq war. Bush cannot argue that Al Qaeda has been bested and certainly won't mention that its most active theater of operations is now in U.S. "controlled" Iraq.

As noted, the federal response to Katrina was an eye opener for anyone who believed the Bush administration when it said the country was ready for the Next Big One. Consequently, the president has nothing to point to in the way of inroads in the domestic War on Terror. Even the renewal of his beloved USA Patriot Act is being held hostage by a coalition of Democrats and, gasp! Republicans in the Senate who correctly believe that the House-approved version unncecessarily infringes on civil liberties.

This offers an appropriate segue to the fact that Americans seem to be pretty much evenly divided about the legitimacy of the National Security Agency domestic spying program that Bush secretly approved. That hot-button subject -- which will be aired out in forthcoming congressional hearings and lawsuits -- is not likely to be something that he will dwell on, let alone hype as big and bold. When all is said and done, he acted cowardly and not presidentially.


Nowhere has President Bush squandered more of that precious political capital than on big and bold domestic initiatives.

Several states are refusing to implement provisions of his No Child Left Behind initiative because of the unrealistic educational and financial burdens it forces on them, while nearly half the states have had to intercede in response to the chaotic rollout of his Medicare prescription-drug program initiative. This initiative was to be a key part of the State of the Union speech until it became obvious that in true administration style, the prez and his enablers yet again talked a good game while not bothering to sweat the details. (Memo to George: This also was the recipe for disaster in Iraq, but then no one ever accused you of being a fast learner.)

Then there is the president's big and bold Social Security "reform" initiative, which seems like ancient history now. Thank God. The collapse of the initiative despite a months' long road show across the U.S. to sell it is a reminder that the American people are not always gullible. Bush, of course, claimed that his reforms would preserve the program for future generations. Americans understood that it would do no such thing and the harder the president pushed the initiative the more people were repelled by it. In the end, it was an unmitigated disaster.

(This is a good example of the administration's penchant for intentionally misleading or outright lying when there is no reason to do so. Social Security does indeed need mid-course corrections, but Bush and his handlers took the alarmist and utterly false course of claiming that it was on the verge of bankruptcy and that the nation's elderly would be left destitute.)

There is a double (triple?) whammy for Bush here: The anticipated successes of the Social Security reform initiative and Medicare drug program initiative were going to open the door to yet another big and bold second-term initiative -- health-care savings plans. But he finds himself confronted by a public deeply concerned about benefits cuts of any kind after his attempted Social Security grab, a Treasury badly depleted because of profligate spending, and a federal deficit growing by leaps and bounds. So it's likely that big and bold initiative will be toned down.


What then is there left for a president with historically low poll numbers to speechify on?

He is pretty much left with two oldies as he plods into his sixth year in office and looming mid-term elections that could deplete if not erase the Republican majority in Congress if the Democrats show signs of having a pulse. (It is pretty much a given that Democrats will pick up statehouses; the White House's dealings with the states have been characterized by an imperious inflexibility that has not gone unnoticed in the hinterlands.)

Here is what Bush will stress in his State of the Union speech:

* The need to vigorously prosecute the War on Terror and its implicit flipside, the weakness of Democrats on all things national defense.

The only area in which the president maintains an edge in the polls over Democrats is terrorism. The Dems are indeed weak and seem to be hopelessly befuddled at a time when the Republican juggernaut is vulnerable. But prattling on about the War on Terror has taken on a Chicken Little quality absent any tangible successes to point to and, yes, the dangerous complacency that comes with the fact that there has not been an attack on the homeland since 9/11. However, merely stating that fortunate circumstance -- which Bush will do while whistling past the grave yard -- doesn't pay the rent.

And remember, Katrina was a hurricane, not a hijacked airliner, toxic chemical release or "dirty" nuclear bomb.

* Making tax cuts permanent.

This is indeed a big and bold initiative given the precarious state of the Treasury, but it is easier said than done because the administration's addiction to overspending and embrace of pork barrel politics is undermining it. The budget deficit is staggering and growing. The war in Iraq is an enormous drain, as will be rebuilding New Orleans. The mood of a public that used to be a pushover for tax cuts has changed, and once what had been a slam dunk will be a hard sell -- perhapy an impossibly hard sell.


The success of a presidency need not be measured by big ideas and bold ideas. In fact, that concept is contrary to traditional Republican conservatism. George Bush has nevertheless staked his success on the big and bold, although he can be forgiven for overreaching to an extent.

However, with the exception of helping stoke the flames of democracy in the Mideast, those big and bold initiatives all have foundered, or in the case of the Iraq war had profoundly grotesque results.

The initiatives have all foundered not because Bush is a visionary before or beyond his time, but as a consequence of a power-hungry presidency famously isolated from reality, cloaked in secrecy, driven by political expediency, blind to corruption and hubristically confident that only it has the right answer no matter the question. No wonder there is such a feeling of pessimism in the U.S. today. For all of that Bush cannot be forgiven.

I'll say it again: The success of a presidency need not be measured by big and bold initiatives. It is likely that the speech that Bush delivers will be reflective of an administration oft bitten-now shy, and chary of going boldly anywhere. You should understand that this is not because of a concern that thinking big and bold and again not delivering would cause harm to the republic, but because of the harm it would do to his political standing.

So we can expect less, perhaps a lot less on Tuesday night. In this case, less mustard and more meat would be a good thing, as well as an opportunity for Bush to turn around a very troubled presidency before he makes an even bigger mess of things.

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