President Bush made sure to keep the focus of his State of the Union address last night on national security – a strategy that has been successful for Republicans in recent elections. The president displayed what seemed to be genuine optimism for the upcoming year, declaring: “The state of our Union is strong, and together we will make it stronger.” But while his vision for America may be sincere, his speech did little to inspire confidence that the administration would move beyond using the nation’s fear of terrorism as a scapegoat and distraction for its failed domestic and international policies.
After a number of standing ovations in response to his calls for patriotic support of our troops, the president extended his call for national unity to justify the National Security Administration’s illegal wiretaps on citizens. Bush tried linking opposition to these wiretaps with the Sept. 11 attacks – as if any citizen skeptical of the Bush administration’s overreach of its powers is tacitly supporting terrorism.
On the domestic front, Bush made foreign oil independence a link between turmoil abroad and high energy prices at home. Bush finally backed off on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and proposed the Advanced Energy Initiative, which could be an important step to making cleaner, renewable energy sources a significant component of the country’s energy supply. But by failing to acknowledging the need to pair alternative fuel sources with energy conservation, Bush may be sacrificing any long-term success for the sake of preserving the American way of life – right down to its wastefulness.
His plans to reduce the deficit remained unclear: Bush proposed cutting $14 billion out of some 140 supposedly wasteful programs next year, an insignificant sum when compared with the $880 billion the president bragged that his tax cuts saved taxpayers over the past five years. These cuts have been instrumental in exacerbating the federal budget deficit and essentially benefited only the wealthy. Their repeal alone could make far more progress toward Bush’s goal of halving the deficit by 2009 than any number of painful cuts to social programs.
Keeping with his theme of personal responsibility, Bush extended the principle of individual accounts behind his failed Social Security reform to fixing health care – a plan that could be beneficial to helping the wealthy save money on health care but that would do little to expand coverage. Bush said: “Our government has a responsibility to help provide health care for the poor and the elderly, and we are meeting that responsibility.” That statement might come as a surprise to the more than 40 million Americans without health insurance.
Buried between his criticism of “activist courts that try to redefine marriage” and his call to make unsustainable tax cuts permanent, however, there was some legitimately good public policy in Bush’s speech. In addition to his energy proposals, Bush announced an awkwardly named American Competitiveness Initiative, which promises to double funding in some physical science fields – a welcome announcement from an administration that had previously sliced funding for the National Science Foundation. The initiative also aims to improve math and science education in a nation whose students are increasingly falling behind their peers throughout the world.
Much of Bush’s speech was devoted to developing two rhetorical themes calculated, no doubt, to frame public opinion of an administration that has seen declining popularity. Bush, clearly not concerned with the foreign reaction to his speech, stressed that America must defend its economic and military dominance. At home, Bush described America as a “hopeful society” in the midst of a “revolution of conscience.” It sounds like something former President Ronald Reagan might have said; the dual vision of American might abroad and optimism at home has certainly worked for Republicans before. Tim Kaine, the missionary turned first-term governor of Virginia, offered a countering vision in the Democratic response with the catchphrase, “There’s a better way.” That might be right, but for Democrats to fare well in this year’s midterm elections, their message has to connect with voters better than Bush’s rhetoric did.