Hamid Karzai, Rudy Giuliani and Sharon Spann could not be found in the gallery of the U.S. House of Representatives. There were no strategically-placed heroes in the wings of Congress, yesterday evening. The focus was squarely and solidly placed upon the president.

Paul Wong

On a day that saw the reelection of Ariel Sharon as prime minister of Israel, the largest battle in Afghanistan since March and the continuing saga taking place at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the beginning of President Bush’s State of the Union was strangely out-of-place. Drug addiction, mentoring programs, human cloning and partial birth abortion. You could almost see William Kristol and the rest of the neocons yawning and turning off their TV sets, as Bush slogged through his domestic agenda. The assaults on trial lawyers and the bitter memories of ClintonCare were a tedious prelude to next year’s presidential election. But just a shade before 9:35 p.m., the speech underwent a tectonic shift.

The turning point was Bush’s introduction of a $1.2 billion initiative to promote the development of hydrogen-powered vehicles. Although Bush’s similarities to former President Bill Clinton appear nonexistent (and neither man would be comfortable acknowledging any shared qualities), this proposal exemplified classic Clintonism. Bush triangulated the Democrats, arguing to the American public that he supports dramatic plans to increase energy efficiency and wean the United States off its reliance on foreign petroleum. And while the $1.2 billion is far from the “Manhattan Project” for new fuel technologies envisioned by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and then-House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), Bush now has the high ground with the electorate.

From here Bush built-up to the international sphere. The most serious mistake of last year’s speech, David Frum’s ill-fated phrase “Axis of Evil” was jettisoned. Bush articulated the essential dichotomy between the rulers of Iran, North Korea and Iraq and the ruled of Iran, North Korea and Iraq. The moral and humanitarian arguments for intervention, which were unnecessarily lost in last year’s State of the Union were the centerpiece of this year’s address.

Bush established an unambiguous outline of the coming days’ developments in the Iraq crisis. Secretary of State Colin Powell will address the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 5, where many are expecting a replay of Adlai Stevenson’s performance at the U.N. at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Will the Bush administration finally come forward with its incontrovertible evidence that Sadaam Hussein is engaged in the production of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons? The endgame, for better and for worse, is now set and their will be little room for any party, the United States, the European Union, the Security Council or Iraq to maneuver from the brink.

There will be innumerable analyses of reactions to Bush’s speech. GOP pollsters Frank Luntz, Jan van Lohuizen and Matthew Dowd are probably still sifting through empirical and statistical data on the public reaction to the oration. Major media organizations in the nation are still poring over their transcripts with focus groups in an attempt to discern which themes effectively portrayed the president’s positions.

I would suspect that the cowboy flourishes – Bush’s drawl that “they (al-Qaida terrorists) are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies” – will be remembered as a boastful mistake. The unrepentant machismo cannot help the U.S. cause among the fence-sitters and plays into the worst stereotypes of Bush as a free-wheeling and uncontrollable Westerner. Especially in the scorned nations of “Old Europe,” these rhetorical excesses prickle the conscience and minds of both elites and masses.

Last year’s speech, hailed as a rhetorically gripping performance, now appears almost quaint. The world has undergone excessive change since the halcyon climate of one year ago. The president faces a rapidly changing world where Le Monde’s memorable headline after Sept. 11 “We Are All Americans Now” has been replaced with a slippery geopolitical scene. From backroom deals for control of the new Europe between Germany and France to a Security Council less amenable to the Bush administration’s wishes, the obstacles lying ahead for the president are vast. Leaving us with one question: Can the hegemon ever be loved?

Zac Peskowitz can be reached at zpeskowi@umich.edu.

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