Tonight was the first of the big lasts for George Bush’s final year. He will never give a State of the Union address again. He says he hasn’t succumbed to nostalgia yet, but maybe he feels a little glee. No more searching for a new way to say that tired phrase “the state of our union is strong.” No more running the gantlet of members of Congress you don’t recognize and don’t like. (Amid the back-slapping and requests for autographs tonight, Chris Shays, a Republican congressman from Connecticut, smooched him.)
Like many other State of the Unions, this one started with bipartisan smiles and applause and quickly ran away in the other direction. After Bush talked about common achievement, he immediately asked Democrats to make his tax cuts permanent; Democrats advocate the opposite policy. Then he dinged Congress (by which he means the Democrats who control it) for failing to curb spending, cut earmarks, curb the growth of entitlement spending, and fund programs it has passed. He accused them of endangering American lives by not passing the bill on electronic surveillance, over which the body is bitterly fighting at the moment. The kicker for Democrats was that Bush made it clear that while they may want troops out of Iraq quickly, he’s not going to bend to them in the least.
For Democratic lawmakers in the audience, perhaps the most irksome item was the president’s tough new approach to congressional earmarks, those little projects lawmakers insert not into the text of bills presented to the president but in reports that accompany them. He says he will veto spending bills this year unless Congress cuts in half the amount of money earmarked for lawmakers’ pet projects, and he will order agencies to ignore future earmarks unless they are explicitly listed in the text of legislation.
I am all for this. Legislators should have to be honest about what they’re trying to get us to pay for. Bush is playing a political angle here. He’s picking an election-year fight with Democrats who control Congress to make them look like big spenders, and he’s also trying to rehabilitate his reputation among Republicans as a spendthrift. But there is chutzpah in George Bush, who perfected the use of the signing statement to circumvent Congress when it worked its will, targeting earmarks because they circumvent the regular congressional process. “If these items are truly worth funding, the Congress should debate them in the open and hold a public vote,” he said. Next, Bush will offer executive orders that demand better elocution from public officials and ban smirking.
Part of the president’s goal was to remind Congress and the American people that he’s still relevant, but other than the executive orders he promised and the Middle East peace initiative he committed himself to, he didn’t do anything in his speech to prove that relevance. He extended no great hand to the opposition, and the laundry list of programs he ticked off—which he knows mostly won’t get passed in an election year—look only like an attempt to box in Democrats by raising expectations about what they can achieve. His opponents reacted accordingly. By the end they looked a little sour, as if they’d been snacking on mustard packets.
Perhaps there was nothing that the president could do to please his Democratic critics. He certainly got no love from the Democrats who want to replace him. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were certainly on guard not to look cheerful while the president talked. In the cutaway shot, Obama had his lips pursed and two fingers on them, looking as he might have looked pulling the last drag off the last cigarette he smoked before quitting. Clinton, in a red power suit, clapped as if she’d been dropped into an Obama victory rally. Just think how bad it’ll be next year if either of them has to clap for the other.
Final State of the Union addresses are useful for shaping a president’s legacy and preparing the political terrain to help his party in the coming election. Bush did a little of both. He took a victory lap on the military surge in Iraq and claimed political success. He also highlighted his efforts to cure AIDS in Africa, fight malaria, and expand opportunities to help the less fortunate at home, programs that either haven’t gotten enough attention in the press or haven’t been a signature priority of his presidency.
Bush was not nearly as political as he has been in the past. (He once said he liked to lean forward when announcing proposals he knew would irk his opponents, just to enjoy the moment a little more.) But the speech did have an overarching political philosophy: The American people should be trusted with the solutions to their problems. “We must trust in the ability of free people to make wise decisions. … We must trust people with their own money. … The people’s trust in their government is undermined. … We must trust Americans with the responsibility of homeownership. … We must trust students to learn … trust in the good heart of the American people. … We must trust American workers to compete. … We must trust in the creative genius of American researchers.” There were more examples. Trust me.
This is the first part of a standard GOP refrain: We trust the people; Democrats trust the government. If you oppose Republican policies, it is because you don’t have faith in the American people.
Bush can’t do much for his successors, since the two principal Republicans vying for the White House are essentially running against him. John McCain’s main message to voters is that he saw what was wrong in Iraq long before the president did. Mitt Romney’s main message is that Washington is broken. When he lists the failures or thin accomplishments from the federal government, it exactly matches the Bush agenda of programs that have passed and gambits that have failed.
George Bush came into office promising to change the tone in Washington and write big chapters in history. In his last two annual addresses to Congress, he pledged to kick the nation of its oil habit and overhaul the Social Security system. Tonight’s speech was small in its goals, and given the tone in Washington, any new chapters he’s going to write, he’ll probably have to write himself.