Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Bush State of the Union Address Gets "A" for Style, "C" for Substance

While there were some expectations that President Bush’s State of the Union address in front of a Democratic-controlled Congress was going to be an uncomfortable affair, the president actually turned in one of his better performances. Not since Richard Nixon’s State of the Union speech in 1974 has a president addressed the nation with such low standings in public opinion as well as within his own Party. Unlike Nixon, Bush turned in a workman-like performance that while short on substance, it was long on style.

From the beginning, Bush set the stage and showed that this was going to be a kindler, gentler State of the Union address. Everyone watching knew the historical significance of the evening in that it was the first address presided over by a female Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. Bush wasted no time honoring that fact. “Tonight, I have the high privilege and distinct honor of my own as the first president to begin the State of the Union message with these words: "Madame Speaker," Bush said. “In his day, the late Congressman Thomas D'Alesandro, Jr., from Baltimore, Maryland, saw Presidents Roosevelt and Truman at this rostrum. But nothing could compare with the sight of his only daughter, Nancy, presiding tonight as speaker of the House of Representatives. Congratulations, Madame Speaker. Congratulations.” Very classy moment.

He proceeded to recognize the politicians who were not in attendance due to illness. “Two members of the House and Senate are not with us tonight, and we pray for the recovery and speedy return of Senator Tim Johnson and Congressman Charlie Norwood,” said Bush.

In most of Bush’s previous speeches, he likes to extend a hand of friendship to the opposition and then give them a little backhand slap before he finishes his train of thought. Last night was no different, but it was clear that this wasn’t the same combative president we’ve seen in years past. “Some in this Chamber are new to the House and Senate — and I congratulate the Democratic majority,” said the President. “Congress has changed, but not our responsibilities. Each of us is guided by our own convictions — and to these we must stay faithful. Yet we are all held to the same standards, and called to serve the same good purposes: To extend this Nation’s prosperity; to spend the people’s money wisely; to solve problems, not leave them to future generations; to guard America against all evil, and to keep faith with those we have sent forth to defend us.” That got a standing ovation from both sides of the aisle.

But just a few moments later, he was able to get the Democrats to do the old “stand up and clap, then sit down really quick” tango. “Tonight, I want to discuss three economic reforms that deserve to be priorities for this Congress,” he said. “First, we must balance the federal budget (everybody up). We can do so without raising taxes.” Some of the Democrats surely hurt themselves from sitting down as violently fast as they did.

Most of the address contained proposals that both Democrats and Republicans would generally find agreeable, but whether or not any of those proposals go anywhere is debatable. Bush wants to revamp the earmark process, address the issue of entitlements, reauthorize “No Child Left Behind,” offer a standard tax deduction for health insurance, and diversify America’s energy supply, to name a few. The one area where he and Democrats may find some common ground, to the dismay of many in the GOP, is immigration. “Extending hope and opportunity in our country requires an immigration system worthy of America, with laws that are fair and borders that are secure,” Bush said. “Convictions run deep in this Capitol when it comes to immigration. Let us have a serious, civil, and conclusive debate, so that you can pass, and I can sign, comprehensive immigration reform into law.”

While immigration reform may be the one domestic proposal Bush finds some success in the next twelve months, this State of the Union, however, was still about one thing: Iraq. Though the President was not afraid to attack the issue head on and stick to his guns, you could see and feel the change in attitude among the lawmakers present. Amazingly, Bush still continues to attempt to link 9/11 to the battle in Iraq. “Al Qaeda and its followers are Sunni extremists,” Bush said at one point. Yes, that is true, and it’s also a slick way to keep that completely discredited 9/11 link alive in the minds of some Americans as they continue to see the daily carnage out of Iraq, at the hands of those “Shia and Sunni extremists.” Once and for all, Bush should put an end to that charade.

Bush is much better served when he plays to the pride of an America that, while war-weary, does not want to leave a greater mess in Iraq than already exists. “This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we are in,” said the President. “Every one of us wishes that this war were over and won. Yet it would not be like us to leave our promises unkept, our friends abandoned, and our own security at risk. Ladies and gentlemen: On this day, at this hour, it is still within our power to shape the outcome of this battle. So let us find our resolve, and turn events toward victory.” This was Bush’s strongest moment of the night.

The most emotional moment came at the end of the speech when Bush, as has become the custom in State of the Union addresses, recognized four ordinary citizens for their extraordinary efforts. The most heartwarming had to be the story of New Yorker Wesley Autrey who jumped onto subway tracks and saved a man who had fallen into the path of an oncoming train. Bush did a great job weaving Autrey’s heroism into the bravery of our troops in Iraq. “He insists he’s not a hero,” Bush said. “He (Autrey) says: “We got guys and girls overseas dying for us to have our freedoms. We got to show each other some love.” There is something wonderful about a country that produces a brave and humble man like Wesley Autrey.”

It was a smart way to end an address that had begun to collapse under the weight of Iraq. Today, we see that lawmakers remain unmoved by the President’s speech with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voting 12-9 in favor of the non-binding resolution opposed to sending more American troops to Iraq. It was clear from the Democratic response given by Virginia Senator Jim Webb, a Vietnam veteran who was Navy secretary during Republican President Reagan’s administration, that Democrats, and a growing list of Republicans, would yield no ground. After speaking glowingly of respected economic and military deeds by Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, Webb ended by saying “These Presidents took the right kind of action, for the benefit of the American people and for the health of our relations around the world. Tonight we are calling on this President to take similar action, in both areas. If he does, we will join him. If he does not, we will be showing him the way.”

Those definitely sound like fighting words from a man who won’t be to dinner at the White House in the near future. Bush’s speech broke no new ground nor did it add to his woes, which may have been the most he could ask for. While it may not be the equivalent of the inmates running the asylum, Congress now stands ready to flex its muscle, and Democrats will have plenty of help from many disgruntled Republicans along the way. For President Bush, his only hope for making the last two years of his presidency bearable is if his new best friend, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, can significantly alter events on the ground in Iraq. By summer’s end, we will know the answer.

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