If last year’s State of the Union address was the most important of President Bush’s career, then last night’s takes a close second. While last year’s speech was a means to an end — re-election — this year’s set the tone of the president’s second term, one he is starting with the lowest approval ratings in the history of second term presidents. Bush faces tough foreign policy choices and is saddling up to take on one of the government’s largest and most important programs.
During the speech, however, Bush again demonstrated that he is out of touch with both fiscal and social reality. Social Security was undoubtedly the major focus of Bush’s fourth State of the Union address. Since his re-election in November, the buzz in Washington has focused on the program on which so many retirees depend. If left to Congress, it is likely that no Social Security reform will occur, but Bush has made it one of the major policy goals of his second term. The staple of his proposed plan is a scheme that would allow individuals to divert some of their payroll taxes into private investment accounts that would theoretically provide higher returns than the current system.
Bush’s reasoning for reform, however, is somewhat suspect. In his speech, the president implied that by 2018, the program would be searching for money to fund its dependents. In fact, economists and Social Security experts generally agree that the program has enough reserve assets in trust funds and Treasury securities to fund itself until 2042. Again, it seems that the administration is attempting to sell a major policy initiative through fear and deception.
While Bush spent a significant portion of his speech hyping Social Security reform, crucial programs such Medicare and Medicaid were barely mentioned. This is especially troubling considering that both these programs will likely face financial crises long before Social Security. Social Security, even by the most pessimistic estimates, will be solvent until 2042; with health care costs increasing at double-digit rates each year, neither Medicare nor Medicaid will remain affordable in 2042.
Although he has proposed to cut the budget deficit in half, he does not seem realistically committed to fiscal discipline, and his administration’s record over the past four years hardly suggests that Bush is capable of responsible spending in the future. It is disturbing that if Bush actually attempts to scale back government deficits, he will not do so by rescinding his irresponsible tax cuts, but rather by endangering the financial security of much more critical government programs. In his speech, Bush proposed to cut the budget deficit by limiting government discretionary spending increases to below the rate of inflation. Unfortunately, this strategy would bring real spending down to a level that would place necessary government programs at risk.
Bush announced with pride that he plans to increase the size of Pell grants. However, his simplistic announcement failed to address the true complexities — and drawbacks — of his plan. Most importantly, the $500 increase is not nearly enough to address the rapidly-escalating cost of education — much more has to be done. More dubiously, while some students will receive higher benefits, others will see benefit cuts as new eligibility rules are enacted.
In his speech, Bush once again touted his signature plan for elementary and secondary education — No Child Left Behind. This underfunded program, which attempts to enforce standards through mandatory standardized testing, has been widely denounced by educators and teachers’ unions across the nation. Even successful schools, such as those in Ann Arbor, have been mislabeled as failing by the formulaic testing system NCLB uses. If Bush wants to actually help improve elementary and secondary education, he must fulfill the funding pledges he first made when NCLB passed and move away from the overreliance on standardized performance tests.
On social issues, the president appeared out of touch with reality as well when he reiterated his strong support for a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. While he may have been propelled into office for a second time by a strong turnout among social conservatives, a constitutional ban on gay marriage is still unpopular. Last year, when the amendment came up in front of the U.S. Senate, it was soundly defeated in a procedural vote. If Bush is serious about uniting this country in the wake of a divisive election, he cannot cater to an extreme segment of the population.
Bush turned to foreign policy in the second half of the speech, and he touted last Sunday’s Iraqi elections as a sign of progress in Iraq. These elections are, without doubt, a large step toward achieving the grandiose plans Bush has envisioned for the country. However, these interim elections are just a step, and the insurgency plaguing Iraq will need to be quelled before plans for a withdrawal begin to take shape. Even as public pressure for withdrawal mounts, Bush must stand resolved to see this war through to the end.
If last night’s speech is indicative of Bush’s second term, Social Security reform will likely define his domestic legacy. Unfortunately, Bush seems to once again have skewed priorities. He detailed a plan for reforming the Depression-era brainchild of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but left out any plan to fix the financially unstable Medicare and Medicaid entitlements. His fiscal message was to cut the deficit by cutting spending, despite the mounting costs of two simultaneous wars in Asia. He strongly supported an already-failed constitutional ban on gay marriage, but did not even mention the drawbacks posed by his signature education proposals. If this speech is an indication of where the administration is headed, there is little chance that Bush will honor his postelection rhetoric of unifying a divided nation.