Ballot Box

State of the Union: Instant Analysis

What captured the essence of George W. Bush’s first State of the Union address was not any single thing the president said. It was his choice of guests to sit with Laura Bush in the House gallery.

In the first row, right next to the first lady, was the new interim prime minister of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, splendid as ever in a green tribal shawl, collarless shirt, and lambskin hat. One row back, seated less prominently behind Mrs. Bush, was the bullnecked Teamsters chief Jimmy Hoffa Jr., also dressed in his native costume—blue suit, white shirt, and scowl. Karzai’s presence spoke to the beginning and the end of the address, in which Bush depicted the war on terrorism in largely nonpolitical terms, as a virtuous nation’s fight against evil. Hoffa, whose union has endorsed the president’s position on drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, represented the president’s return to civilian politics and the speech’s more partisan core.

The opening and closing sections revisited the agony of Sept.11, the success of our military response, and the challenges ahead in the War on Terrorism. It actually had fewer rhetorical flourishes than most of Bush’s big set-piece speeches but did include some nice Gersonian touches, such as the way Bush explained American political values as universal aspirations: “No people on earth yearn to be oppressed, or aspire to servitude, or eagerly await the midnight knock of the secret police,” he said.

The major newsbreak, to my ears, was Bush preparing the nation for war with Iraq. After describing Iraq as a state that has been busy trying to develop anthrax and nuclear weapons and, as he put it, “has something to hide from the civilized world,” Bush set the table for a confrontation. “We will be deliberate, yet time is not on our side,” the president said. “I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” That, and similar rhetoric made it sound like the question in the White House is no longer whether to attack Saddam, but when and how to do it.

The domestic news was Bush’s endorsement of an ambitious-sounding national service scheme. You can no longer say that the president hasn’t asked Americans to sacrifice in any meaningful way. He just outflanked John McCain and everyone else on the issue by asking you, whoever and however old you are, for two years or 4,000 hours of—well, I’m not sure what, but something A State of the Union isn’t the place for too much detail; whether Bush’s National Freedom Corps is a practical idea or a pose will depend on how he develops it in the coming weeks.

You could tell the speech was about to get more partisan when Bush disavowed any such intent. “I am a proud member of my party,” he said. “Yet as we act to win the war, protect our people, and create jobs in America, we must act first and foremost not as Republicans, not as Democrats, but as Americans.” What followed was an assault by velvet hammer. Instead of criticizing Democrats directly, Bush tried to frame his positions on a series of contentious issues in a way that’s politically devastating without appearing outwardly aggressive. For example, Bush no longer has a conservative economic agenda. He now has an “economic security” package that’s a domestic corollary to our fight overseas.

As delineated in Bush’s speech, though, “economic security” sounds a lot like maxing out your credit cards. On top of “the largest increase in defense spending in two decades” and “nearly” doubling spending on homeland security, the president issued or renewed calls for the following items: a stimulus package, an acceleration of already-passed tax cuts, making all tax breaks permanent, all manner of new education spending, a prescription drug benefit for the elderly, private Social Security accounts for younger workers, an expansion of the Peace Corps, and about a dozen other not insignificant things.

Then Bush declared, “Our budget will run a deficit that will be small and short-term so long as Congress restrains spending and acts in a fiscally responsible way.” Proposing a guns-and-butter spending spree accompanied by additional tax cuts and then telling Congress to be “fiscally responsible” is like Enron fobbing off blame for its bankruptcy on Arthur Andersen.

And speaking of Topic A, it was a ghostly presence, but no more, in the address. The president referred to the need for pension reform, higher accounting standards, and holding corporate America “accountable”—all thoughts that flow directly out of the scandal. But Bush wasn’t about to say the word “Enron.” To do so would have been a little too Hoffa and not quite Karzai enough for the occasion.