Today President Bush will give his second State of the Union Address, and if history is any guide, it will be memorable, influential and disastrous. In the first speech he gave before a joint session of Congress in early 2001, the newly- elected (to use the term loosely) president gave a pitch for more spending, huge tax cuts, a balanced federal budget and paying down the national debt. It didn’t quite turn out that way.

Paul Wong
Peter Cunniffe

Bush emphasized spending on the military and education, and while outdoing the wildest dreams of military contractors, he failed to even support fully paying for his own vaunted No Child Left Behind Act in this year’s budget, leaving unfunded mandates that the states, most of which are suffering from severe budget shortfalls, now have to pay for. Bush did get the tax cuts he wanted, but the first balanced federal budgets in decades are quickly turning into the largest deficits in history and the cuts certainly didn’t “jump start the American economy,” as he asserted they would.

In his first official State of the Union a year later, Bush focused on newly pressing national security issues. But some of his recent actions – such as setting spending limits under which the Senate just cut the FBI budget from $4.2 billion to $3.8 billion – seem to subordinate security to filling the budgetary hole created by tax cuts. The spending cuts he demanded have been projected to require the elimination of over 1,000 FBI agents, hundreds of food safety inspectors, 1,600 customs agents and the reduction the biodefense budget by 44 percent.

That first State of the Union also gave us the Axis of Evil. While Bush is pushing hard – and not without justification – to invade chief evildoer Iraq, he has used the occasion to alienate many of the United States’ traditional allies. Rather than working through the United Nations, which, contrary to certain punditry, is possible (as Bush himself showed by quickly getting weapons inspections restarted), Bush seems to have decided what will drive this war is not the inspections process he promoted and agreed to, or the coalition building practiced by his father, but merely the machinations of his advisors.

Then there’s the first evildoer Bush actually mentioned in the speech, North Korea. This is a country with a military and weapons of mass destruction program far more dangerous than Iraq. It was also a country causing few international problems and that was building a stable relationship with its longtime nemesis, United States-allied South Korea, before Bush came into office. The conservative theorists given control of much of American foreign policy decreed that bad countries without oil be handled roughly, however, and in one of his first meetings with a foreign leader, Bush dutifully jabbed a diplomatic stick into South Korea’s eye, deriding then-president Kim-dae Jung’s rapprochement-seeking policies to his face after Colin Powell had led him to believe there would be no change.

A year later North Korea was tossed into the Axis, its antagonism assured, and we now have a crisis to deal with that, unlike Iraq, Bush insists must be handled diplomatically. North Korea is a bad place. Its building nuclear weapons and keeping hundreds of thousands of people in concentration camps. But why insult and goad them into confrontation, and alienate a once staunch ally for good measure, when you’re not actually going to do anything about it? Especially when it makes your ultra-tough line look hypocritical.

The stunning miscalculations worked into these presidential addresses will no doubt be portrayed as successes in today’s speech. We’ll be told the last tax cuts were so great that wealthy people need even more. The Axis of Evil will still be evil and will soon – probably – have one fewer member. That’s going to mean alienating much of the world, seriously degrading our standing and influence, but we don’t need help; the growth from the tax cuts will pay for the war, the occupation and the rebuilding. And even if they don’t, deficits – according to a recent conservative revelation -are nothing to worry about. Unless they’re funding Bush’s own education programs of course, we just can’t afford those right now.

Besides these rehashes, at least one new mistake in the making will be announced: a plan expanding prescription drug coverage, which moves seniors from Medicare to HMOs. I’m sure they’ll love that. And who knows what Axis of Evil-esque rhetorical flourishes Bush’s overdramatic speechwriters will burden American foreign policy with this year.

The speech will also include the obligatory assessment of the state of our union as strong. But with the economy doing poorly, tens of thousands of jobs being lost every month and our international reputation being wrecked, that’s going to be a tough sell. This is what Bush’s policies have given us and later today he’ll offer only more of the same.

Peter Cunniffe can be reached at pcunniff@umich.edu.

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