The Big Idea

Out of Gas

Bush’s sputtering State of the Union.

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Running on empty

Admittedly, the State of the Union address has become a tedious ritual. According to calcified habit, presidents must begin by describing the country’s condition as “strong,” go on to point out the American “heroes” planted in the House gallery, and flit lightly over dozens of disparate topics between pauses for theatrical applause. This year’s pandering nadir came during the brief passage on bioethics, when George Bush called for legislation banning the creation of “human-animal hybrids.” In Washington, there is a lobby for everything except apparently mermaids and centaurs.

At the same time, the State of the Union is a political occasion that can still matter a great deal. It remains a president’s grandest regular opportunity to tell the country what he wants to do and ask its support. For a leader who has become stuck, like Bill Clinton in 1999 after his impeachment vote, or Bush in 2006, the speech affords the tantalizing prospect of a fresh start. So long as he can propose a new agenda to a watching nation, no president is ever completely washed up.

Bush faced special difficulties in making his bid for another chance this year. A strong president can appeal to the public over the heads of an antagonistic Congress. But Bush’s unpopularity, coupled with the scandal running rife among his allies in the Republican House, means that he lacks the political capital to propose major new initiatives. This time last year, when he was somewhat stronger than he is now, Bush proposed a radical restructuring of Social Security around private accounts. Because the idea fell flat, it left him weaker than before.

What’s more, Bush is as resource-constrained as any president in recent memory. The overextension of our military would have made any “axis of evil”-style belligerence directed toward Iran or North Korea come across as an empty gesture. And given the chasm Bush has reopened in the budget, there is little appetite even on the part of Republicans for additional tax cuts, which were the central economic initiatives of Bush’s first three State of the Union addresses. Significant new spending is off the table for the same reason. 

Thus, Bush’s only real alternative this time was to seek out areas for bipartisan cooperation. His chosen areas of emphasis—energy independence and “competitiveness”—were sound in principle. Both are broadly supported national goals, areas where it’s possible to imagine conservatives and liberals joining together in support of sensible policies. Unfortunately, Bush blew what may have been his last chance to create a second-term legacy beyond whatever happens in Iraq. The way he framed both issues suggests he lacks both the boldness and seriousness he needs to recover his legs.

Setting a broad goal of energy independence was the signature of Bush’s speech. Declaring, in the evening’s most quotable line, that, “America is addicted to oil,” he proposed reducing America’s importation of oil from the Middle East by 75 percent over 20 years and making ethanol-burning cars economically viable within six years. For a former oilman who is often accused of favoring his old industry, these were at least arresting proclamations. Exxon and Halliburton are not the likely winners in a large-scale conversion to nuclear power and veggie gas.   

But as he dipped into specifics, the president revealed both the muddle of his thinking and a level of insincerity. In the speech’s key passage on energy, Bush indicated three goals: cheaper fuel, independence from Middle East crude, and environmental improvement.

Like most objectives, these involve choices, trade-offs, and sacrifices, all of which the president seems incapable of acknowledging. Cheap fuel is good for the economy but bad for the environment. Expensive fuel is better for the planet but also good for the totalitarians in Saudi Arabia. Replacing Arab oil with democratic oil or domestic oil won’t change the Middle East, because it won’t significantly affect the market price so long as overall consumption continues to rise. Conservation measures like fuel-economy standards and dedicated taxes can plausibly serve all three of his objectives, but Bush has a quasi-religious aversion to conservation and taxes and didn’t so much as refer to either. Another missing term was global warming, or even the White House’s preferred euphemism of “climate change.” By continuing to pretend that this issue doesn’t exist, Bush deprives himself of perhaps his most powerful argument for kicking oil addiction. 

Instead, Bush put his faith in technology, emphasizing in particular “cellulosic ethanol,” which would use not just corn kernels but husks and stalks as well. This is well-meaning fantasy. Ethanol has already spent several decades as an agribusiness boondoggle of dubious environment benefit; critics contend that it takes more energy to produce a gallon of ethanol than the ethanol contains, and no one would use it if not for massive subsidies. Brazil has had success with a more efficient type of ethanol made from sugar cane. But in a speech filled with denunciations of protectionism in the abstract, Bush was silent about the 50-cent-a-gallon tariff that keeps Brazilian ethanol off the American market—a concrete instance in which domestic politics prevents the use of a cleaner, OPEC-diminishing fuel.

Bush’s vague “competitiveness” agenda suffers from the same sort of wishful thinking and nibbling around the edges. The step that would most strengthen American companies in the global marketplace in the medium-term is relieving them of the burden of providing health care to their workers. In the longer term, only a much stronger federal role in education is likely to make much of a difference. Big departures of this kind do not come easily in the sixth year of any presidency. But if he keeps to the paths of least resistance, Bush will only sputter along for a few more years before running out of gas completely.