George Bush didn’t go through a recovery program when he quit drinking, but surely he knows that the first step to shucking any dependency is admitting the problem. In his big speech, he attempted to do just that when he delivered the evening’s most memorable line, “America is addicted to oil.”
This was a switch from May of 2001 when Ari Fleischer, the president’s spokesman, said that the right to consume massive energy resources was “an American way of life.” I wasn’t expecting any great departure after hearing Bush advisers and allies talk all day about “security” and “optimism” and about how the president was going to “change the tone” (again). But Bush did change the subject, at least a bit. Tomorrow we’re all going to be talking about the “cellulosic ethanol” from corn stalks and “switch grass.”
Even if some of the president’s proposals sounded like futuristic gobbledygook, we now seem poised for a national debate about American energy dependence. That’s more than we’ve come to expect from these dreary annual clapfests. Democrats might actually engage on this topic, instead of responding in the purely political way they did to last year’s Social Security proposal. For a president who came from the oil business and who still has many friends and backers in the industry, putting this initiative at the top of his agenda took some guts.
On the other hand, Bush put his case in a very Bushian way, presenting it as a pain-free alternative to the awful status quo. Only the corn stalk will suffer as we remake a huge sector of the economy and convert to clean, politically innocent fuel sources. None of us have to trade in our SUV’s, drive less, or turn down the thermostat. The president says that in six years cars using the new ethanol will be competitive with gas-burning ones. By 2025, he pledges, America can reduce its dependence on Middle Eastern oil by 75 percent. His aides argue that technology makes this all possible. It sounds too good to be true, and almost certainly is.
And in that sense, Bush’s dramatic new energy proposal had a very familiar ring. In his last State of the Union address, he outlined a bold plan for overhauling Social Security. He made private accounts sound great. He talked about the power of compound interest. He never talked about the costs of creating individual accounts or the trade-offs required for reform.
I’m already feeling a little tricked by the speech. Not because there wasn’t much talk about the austere budget cuts that are coming in the next few days. I’m suspicious because of all the pre-speech talk about how the president would push for a new “civil tone.” I assumed he would offer a more conciliatory one. Instead, Bush was harsher and more partisan than last year, when he was hoping to persuade some Democrats to support his signature proposal. He telegraphed his punches at the top of the speech where he framed the choices facing the country. In 2005, this is how he put it: “Members of Congress, the choices we make together will answer that question. Over the next several months, on issue after issue, let us do what Americans have always done, and build a better world for our children and our grandchildren.”
Tonight he framed the choices in more starkly political terms, as he did during his 2004 election year State of the Union speech: “We will choose to act confidently in pursuing the enemies of freedom—or retreat from our duties in the hope of an easier life. We will choose to build our prosperity by leading the world economy—or shut ourselves off from trade and opportunity. In a complex and challenging time, the road of isolationism and protectionism may seem broad and inviting—yet it ends in danger and decline.”
In 2005, Bush cast himself as groping for solutions to national problems together with Democrats. Tonight, he depicted those who oppose him as lazy, retreating, and negative. “There is a difference between responsible criticism that aims for success, and defeatism that refuses to acknowledge anything but failure,” he said later in the speech. “Hindsight alone is not wisdom. And second-guessing is not a strategy.” He welcomes criticism in theory. But in practice, he sees it all as defeatism, second-guessing, and 20-20 hindsight.
Politics is about defining your enemy. That’s what the president did in his 2006 State of the Union. But change the tone? This year, there can’t have been a person in the room who took that commitment seriously.