It’s hard to treat the State of the Union speech seriously in any year. But this year, it’s practically impossible. The president’s approval ratings are at record lows. Members of his party are revolting against his Iraq troop increase. Democrats control Congress, and the 2008 presidential race has already started, hastening Bush’s lame-duck status. And Tuesday he got a kick in the pants from the opening of the Scooter Libby trial. George Bush has to work fast to save his presidency, and yet he did nothing in his speech to change the political dynamic.
He started strong by lauding Nancy Pelosi as the first woman speaker. To not have done so would have been rude. But he iced the cake by speaking of her father. This was reminiscent of Ronald Reagan who, in 1987, embraced the losses his party suffered in the previous midterm election by congratulating new Democratic Speaker Jim Wright (who sat in Pelosi’s box tonight) and paid homage to Democratic hero Sam Rayburn. Bush also said a special word to ailing members of Congress, including Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson. He ended his annual speech well, too, with moving tributes to civilian heroes in the gallery. (I’m not including the Baby Einstein lady.) The president knows the power of a good gesture in a speech that is largely useful only for gestures.
Good bookends, but then pffft in the middle. He offered some blah proposals and he appealed to the common purpose of America, but that was all. Bush was not confrontational, as he was in the 2006 SOTU, but he sacrificed nothing. He called on everyone to cross the aisle, but showed no intention of doing so himself. And on the crucial issue of the day—the Iraq troop surge—he delivered another rebuke to his opponents. This is the posture of an unhurried man. It is easy to take him at his word when he says he is not concerned about his legacy.
Democrats can’t completely write off the president. He still has to sign the bills they pass, and there was nothing in Bush’s speech that suggested the tussle over Democratic issues will be any less contentious. Yes, Bush shares a few Democratic (or, as he said, “Democrat”) Party priorities—health care, education, and global warming—but this is late in the game, and he’s got to do more than just talk about them. Just because some unreconstructed conservatives might have been angry that Bush mentioned global warming is also not an act of bipartisanship.
Bush should have offered more, because he’s lost his political capital. The country, Democrats, and many in his party don’t believe he has the will or ability to get much done. According to a recent MSNBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 50 percent of respondents think he will be too inflexible in dealing with the new Democrat-run Congress. Only 37 percent think he will strike the right balance. In January 1995, after then-President Clinton and his party took a drubbing in the 1994 midterm elections, just 17 percent said they thought that Clinton would be too inflexible in dealing with the Republican Congress, while 55 percent said he would strike the right balance.
Bush’s most important request of the night was for more time to let his Iraq strategy work. Yet while he was asking for support, he was also showing who (he believes) is boss. He made it clear that his surge was already under way and pressured Democrats. “I ask you to support our troops in the field—and those on their way,” he said. He was playing hardball because Democrats are terrified of being on the wrong side of the troop issue (which is why having Jim Webb give the Democratic rebuttal was so smart), but when he plays hardball on the tough issue of the day, he undermines his effort to reach out. Sitting behind him, Nancy Pelosi had lost the teary-eyed look she wore at the start of the speech. She looked like she was biting down hard enough to crack a molar.