Article: The State of the Union

January 29, 2008
New York Times Editorial
The State of the Union
Six years ago, President Bush began his State of the Union address with two powerful sentences: “As we gather tonight, our nation is at war, our economy is in recession, and the civilized world faces unprecedented dangers. Yet the state of our union has never been stronger.”

Monday night, after six years of promises unkept or insincerely made and blunders of historic proportions, the United States is now fighting two wars, the economy is veering toward recession, the civilized world still faces horrifying dangers — and it has far less sympathy and respect for the United States.

The nation is splintered over the war in Iraq, cleaved by ruthless partisan politics, bubbling with economic fear and mired in debate over virtually all of the issues Mr. Bush faced in 2002. And the best Mr. Bush could offer was a call to individual empowerment — a noble idea, but in Mr. Bush’s hands just another excuse to abdicate government responsibility.

Monday night’s address made us think what a different speech it might have been if Mr. Bush had capitalized on the unity that followed the 9/11 attacks to draw the nation together, rather than to arrogate ever more power and launch his misadventure in Iraq. How different it might have been if Mr. Bush meant what he said about compassionate conservatism or even followed the fiscal discipline of old-fashioned conservatism. How different if he had made a real effort to reach for the bipartisanship he promised in 2002 and so many times since.

Then he could have used last night’s speech to celebrate a balanced budget, one in which taxes produce enough money to pay for the nation’s genuine needs, including health care for poor children and a rebuilt New Orleans. Instead, Mr. Bush called — again — for his tax cuts to be permanent and threatened to veto bills that contained excessive pork-barrel spending, an idea absent from his agenda when Republicans held Congress.

Had Mr. Bush been doing his job right just in the last few weeks, he could have used this speech to celebrate a genuinely bipartisan agreement on a sound economic stimulus plan. In addition to the tax rebates agreed on already between the White House and the House, Mr. Bush could have announced sensible proposals for extending unemployment benefits and a temporary increase in food stamps for the most vulnerable citizens.

Those aren’t just Democratic ideas. The independent Congressional Budget Office ranks those stimulus policies as far more effective than rebates.

If Mr. Bush had let compassion and good sense trump ideology, he would have been able to use last night’s speech to celebrate the expansion of health insurance to tens of millions of children with working parents. Mr. Bush vetoed an expansion of the S-chip program, and he did not even agree to pay for all of the existing coverage because he thought a relative handful of parents might switch from private to public insurance if they were offered government assistance to buy it.

In 2003, the president proposed the Medicare prescription drug benefit, his signature achievement in health insurance reform. It barely squeaked past conservative Republicans in Congress, and Mr. Bush’s appetite for making health care accessible and affordable for all Americans vanished.

Mr. Bush has included a call for immigration reform in all of his previous State of the Union addresses. But he has never matched that rhetoric with strong ideas or political passion. A push last year for comprehensive reform was defeated by his party’s right wing, which continues to spread hatred on the campaign trail. His insight last night: “Illegal immigration is complicated.”

In 2002, Mr. Bush spoke about the international coalition that invaded Afghanistan, about the consensus among civilized nations of the need to combat terrorism, about the way the 9/11 attacks had rallied nations behind America’s leadership. Afghanistan’s good war was quickly overshadowed — and shortchanged — by Mr. Bush’s Iraq folly. Six years later, the United States and its allies are still fighting and dying in Afghanistan and the Taliban is back in force.

He was not even able to assure Americans that there is an end in sight to the Iraq war. Instead, he made the same empty promise he has made every year: When Iraq can defend itself, American troops will come home. Iraq’s defense minister told The Times recently that his forces would not be able to fully keep the peace and defend their country until 2018.

Mr. Bush’s troop escalation has succeeded in stabilizing parts of Baghdad and lowering casualties. But 2007 was still the most violent year in Iraq since the 2003 invasion and — more importantly — Mr. Bush has little to show in the way of political reconciliation, the only guarantor of a lasting peace. Mr. Bush has made no real effort to seek the help of Iraq’s neighbors to help stabilize the country.

In the end, when it comes to Iraq, Mr. Bush’s annual addresses will be remembered most for his false claims — the fictitious “axis of evil,” nonexistent aluminum tubes and African uranium, dangerous weapons that did not exist. No president can want that as his legacy.

Mr. Bush still has a year left — and many serious problems to address. It is time, finally, for him to put aside the partisanship, the bluster and the empty rhetoric. The state of the union is troubled. The nation yearns for leadership.

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