Like many around the nation I watched the President’s State of the Union Address eager to hear something interesting, but was largely disappointed. Maybe I’m too familiar with what’s going on in the country or his past speeches, but it seemed like the speech was pretty much a rehash of things I’d heard before – some of them very good points, but few of them striking or original.
I actually spent much of the speech looking at the crowd reactions, but more on that later. Here are some specific points which I think were actually signficant.
After the obligatory mention of Coretta Scott King the focus was immediately on fighting for freedom, and Bush said some very meaningful but hardly remarkable things about our ongoing fight against the worldwide forces of oppression. Good stuff, but hardly new. But he did wrap up with a nice change of pace when he said:
Our coalition has learned from experience in Iraq. We have adjusted our military tactics and changed our approach to reconstruction. Along the way, we have benefited from responsible criticism and counsel offered by members of Congress of both parties. In the coming year, I will continue to reach out and seek your good advice.
Yet there is a difference between responsible criticism that aims for success, and defeatism that refuses to acknowledge anything but failure. Hindsight alone is not wisdom. And second-guessing is not a strategy.
He neatly acknowledged that the administration has had some troubled policies, while accepting the bipartisan nature of the effort and also getting a nice slam in on the endless complainers of the far left who offer nothing constructive to the process.
Bush went on a bit more about Iraq, and then he got to something interesting, and showed that he had read the recent polls that show a high level of national concern over Iran and a willingness to support military action there.
The same is true of Iran, a nation now held hostage by a small clerical elite that is isolating and repressing its people. The regime in that country sponsors terrorists in the Palestinian territories and in Lebanon, and that must come to an end. The Iranian government is defying the world with its nuclear ambitions, and the nations of the world must not permit the Iranian regime to gain nuclear weapons. America will continue to rally the world to confront these threats. And tonight, let me speak directly to the citizens of Iran: America respects you, and we respect your country. We respect your right to choose your own future and win your own freedom. And our nation hopes one day to be the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran.
My only quibble with this is that the last time I checked the current government of Iran actually got into power by a ‘free and democratic’ process. The people of Iran are the ones who elected the theocratic nuts who are running the country, and while some may be dissatisfied with the results and there may have been some strong-arming, it’s hardly the kind of police state Iraq was.
Then Bush moved into a dark area:
Our country must also remain on the offensive against terrorism here at home. The enemy has not lost the desire or capability to attack us. Fortunately, this nation has superb professionals in law enforcement, intelligence, the military and homeland security. These men and women are dedicating their lives to protecting us all, and they deserve our support and our thanks. They also deserve the same tools they already use to fight drug trafficking and organized crime, so I ask you to reauthorize the Patriot Act.
Here’s another thought. How about instead of renewing the Patrior Act we repeal it and also repeal the laws which gave extraordinary unconstitutional powers to the DEA so it could prosecute the War on Drugs. Or better yet, let’s call off the War on Drugs alltogether and spend that money on fighting terrorism. Think how helpful all that completely wasted money could be if applied to actually helping Americans instead of putting millions of them in prison for victimless crimes.
I’ll skip over the inevitable discussion of domestic surveillance issues, because we’ve all heard it before and after that he moved on to the economy, where Bush seems to be most at home, and things got a lot more interesting.
The American economy is pre-eminent but we cannot afford to be complacent. In a dynamic world economy, we are seeing new competitors like China and India. This creates uncertainty, which makes it easier to feed people’s fears. And so we are seeing some old temptations return. Protectionists want to escape competition, pretending that we can keep our high standard of living while walling off our economy. Others say that the government needs to take a larger role in directing the economy, centralizing more power in Washington and increasing taxes. We hear claims that immigrants are somehow bad for the economy even though this economy could not function without them. All these are forms of economic retreat, and they lead in the same direction toward a stagnant and second-rate economy.
That’s just an outstanding summary of the negative political forces afoot in America today and the dangerous policies they advocate and the damage they could do to the economy. And Bush still has a strong plan for keeping our economic recovery going.
Keeping America competitive begins with keeping our economy growing. And our economy grows when Americans have more of their own money to spend, save and invest. In the last five years, the tax relief you passed has left $880 billion in the hands of American workers, investors, small businesses and families, and they have used it to help produce more than four years of uninterrupted economic growth. Yet the tax relief is set to expire in the next few years. If we do nothing, American families will face a massive tax increase they do not expect and will not welcome.
Because America needs more than a temporary expansion, we need more than temporary tax relief. I urge the Congress to act responsibly, and make the tax cuts permanent.
An inspiring recap of the impact of the tax cuts, and a very important reminder of how hard repealing those cuts will hit our families and the economy if we turn back the clock to the high tax era of the 90s which made us so vulnerable to recession. The Democrats were pointedly seated and silent as the rest of the room broke out in applause and I sure was glad to see that they were visibly outnumbered by those who see what’s best for the nation and rose to their feet in support.
Then Bush hit what was at least a ground-rule double when he summarized spending cuts, promised more for the future, and wrapped up with:
I am pleased that members of Congress are working on earmark reform because the federal budget has too many special interest projects. And we can tackle this problem together, if you pass the line-item veto.
That managed to leave the both sides of the hall in a state of uncomfortable mumbling and scattered applause. I don’t believe it will ever happen – they all like their pork too much – but I’d love to see this little dream come true.
Congress did not act last year on my proposal to save Social Security,
At this point the Democrat side of the hall applauded, but Bush went on:
yet the rising cost of entitlements is a problem that is not going away, and with every year we fail to act, the situation gets worse. So tonight, I ask you to join me in creating a commission to examine the full impact of baby boom retirements on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. This commission should include members of Congress of both parties, and offer bipartisan answers. We need to put aside partisan politics, work together and get this problem solved.
Well, that won them back. Both sides applauded. I guess it’s a nice idea politically, but it guarantees no real reform will take place. It’s the final nail in the coffin for Social Security privatization, so the people will continue to suffer with an ever growing monkey on their back until the system collapses.
I’ll skip over some additional pandering about health insurance. We’ll see if Bush gets to actually implement any reforms, but I have serious doubts. He did actually get some bipartisan applause when he mentioned tort reform, but certain Democrats remained conspicuously silent and looked uncomfortable.
Then he went on to what I think was the best part of the speech and what the news channels did pick up on pretty quickly, energy policy. Keep in mind that Bush has already passed the largest funding bill ever for alternative energy research and consumer energy rebates. Now he seems determined to latch onto this as a possible legacy issue – an excellent alternative if he can’t get Social Security reform, and one which harkens back to the days of Teddy Roosevelt.
Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. Here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.
The best way to break this addiction is through technology. Since 2001, we have spent nearly $10 billion to develop cleaner, cheaper, more reliable alternative energy sources, and we are on the threshold of incredible advances. So tonight, I announce the Advanced Energy Initiative, a 22% increase in clean-energy research at the Department of Energy, to push for breakthroughs in two vital areas. To change how we power our homes and offices, we will invest more in zero-emission coal-fired plants, revolutionary solar and wind technologies, and clean, safe nuclear energy.
We must also change how we power our automobiles. We will increase our research in better batteries for hybrid and electric cars, and in pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen. We will also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn but from wood chips, stalks or switch grass. Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years. Breakthroughs on this and other new technologies will help us reach another great goal: to replace more than 75% of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025. By applying the talent and technology of America, this country can dramatically improve our environment, move beyond a petroleum-based economy and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past.
I was impressed here in several unexpected ways. I hadn’t expected Bush to be so relatively well informed on Ethanol. It’s one of the easiest solutions to our current fuel problems, but it’s been sadly neglected. Despite the fact that 2/3 of the cars on the market can run on E85 Ethanol, it’s almost impossible to get hold of in most parts of the country unless you have a ‘connection’ to a manufacturer. It was also nice to see him mention nuclear, which has been wrongly maligned and might be one of our biggest and most easily achieved solutions to our energy needs.
He then went on a bit about education and making the nation more competitive with his American Competitiveness Initiative, but it didn’t impress me. Not one word about school choice, so all we’re talking about here is wasting more money trying to patch up the flaws in a critically failing system.
Then he went off into one of the creepy areas I wish he’d just avoid, talking about cultral values and other suspect ideas, and wrapping up with an intriguing vision of a future genetic engineering dystopia:
A hopeful society has institutions of science and medicine that do not cut ethical corners, and that recognize the matchless value of every life. Tonight I ask you to pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research: human cloning in all its forms, creating or implanting embryos for experiments, creating human-animal hybrids and buying, selling or patenting human embryos. Human life is a gift from our creator and that gift should never be discarded, devalued or put up for sale.
Ok, has someone been giving him particularly bad Science Fiction novels? ‘Human-animal hybrids’? That’s pretty much out of the blue. I was expecting Charlton Heston to grab the microphone and start screaming about ‘damned dirty apes’. But I guess he was trying to broaden the market for his anti-genetic engineering message. I think even I’m against creating wereroaches and grafting the heads of aging politicians onto the bodies of gorillas. Well, mermaids might be cool. They’d be a big hit at SeaWorld.
Then there was some blather about a hopeful society and some drum thumping about staying the course and victory over evil. Standard stuff, but I did like this paragraph:
Yet the destination of history is determined by human action, and every great movement of history comes to a point of choosing. Lincoln could have accepted peace at the cost of disunity and continued slavery. Martin Luther King could have stopped at Birmingham or at Selma, and achieved only half a victory over segregation. The United States could have accepted the permanent division of Europe, and been complicit in the oppression of others. Today, having come far in our own historical journey, we must decide: Will we turn back, or finish well?
Hard to argue with. I actually didn’t notice it until I read the speech, because while he was actually talking I was still thinking about mermaids at this point.
That was about it. Not a bad speech, but not his greatest either. It was actually delivered remarkably well, with only a couple of stumbles, most notably when the failure of social security reform got applause.
A couple of things stood out.
First there were the catch phrases. I thought the ‘Keeping America Competitive’ theme was a bit tired. It’s an appealing idea but he didn’t really present anything substantive and new in his ‘American Competitiveness Initiative’. The ‘hopeful society’ theme he wrapped up with was also pretty weak. I understand his desire to combat all the negativity in the current political environment, but his idea of hope and mine don’t always find common ground. I’m pretty sure that denying condoms to AIDS victims in Africa and putting more drug users in jail isn’t what I think of as part of a ‘culture of hope’. But the catch phrase that I think did work was when he said ‘America is addicted to oil.’ That was right on target and he followed it up with some good suggestions and meaningful promises. I’d like to see him take this theme and run with it to produce some real, market-based incentives for fuel efficiency and alternative energy. It’s the kind of issue that could save a troubled presidency. Are you listening, George?
Then there was the crowd. The reaction shots reminded me again how truly unpleasant and off-putting Hillary Clinton is. They cut to her several times and caught her simpering in a truly bizarre way. First they got her looking like she’d swallowed some sort of live insect when Bush mentioned domestic surveillance, like she couldn’t decide whether to look enthusiastic or outraged and was searching around for someone to tell her which look would get her into the White House in 2008. She also has a pretty good pissed-off axe murderer look which she graced us with when Bush mentioned the close relationship between her husband and his father in a little joke towards the middle of the speech. But boy, she sure was standing up, applauding and grinning when he mentioned the failure of his social security reform plan, along with most of the other Democrats. I had to choke down my rage, and at one point I’d actually titled this article ‘Why Do Democrats Hate the American People’, but I thought better of it.
The rest of the crowd was interesting to watch too. When Bush called to make the tax cuts permanent the entire Democrat side of the crowd remained seated and silent with disapproving looks on their faces, though Barrack Obama did rub his hands together in a peculiar way. Bush’s mention of the line item veto caused John McCain to dance a little leprechaun jig in his seat, which was pretty amusing and almost got Bush to laugh himself. Reaction elsewhere in the audience was tepid despite the fact that Democrats were all for the idea when they held the White House. And I’ve got some new favorite senators who I’ve never noticed before, including the enthusiastic fat woman in the pink dress and the Democrat I’ve never noticed before who looks exactly like cult film director John Waters. The Supreme court was also interesting. They’re always a refreshing pool of complete stoicism in the midst of all the cheering and carrying on. But what really struck me is that with her hair down Ruth Bader Ginsberg is actually kind of cute. She should stick with her current hair and never go back to that horrible bun. Oh, and Bill Frist looks like Frankenstein on Halcyon and needs to get someone to work on his overbite.
Overall, Bush kept driving home a pretty positive message. He didn’t play up the terrorist threat disproportionately and did manage to make some good points. I sure would have liked to have seen some harder blows to his opposition and more discussion of ‘personal responsibility’, though he did mention it once. Not his greatest speech and as always a mixed message for those of us who like his economic policies and aren’t so happy with some of his other positions, but if there was an overall impact, I think it was to show that the administration has some plans for dealing with the problems the nation faces, and recognizing some of the successes to date. About what you’d expect in a State of the Union speech, and overall a very central, very moderate position statement which will work well for the 2006 election if Republican candidates play along.
You can read the full text at USA Today.