In terms of long term importance, last night’s State of the Union Address was only the #3 story in politics yesterday following Alan Greenspan’s final meeting as Chairman of the Federal Reserve and the Senate’s confirmation of Samuel Alito. Still, it’s always interesting to dissect a major political speech. So, grading President Bush’s performance purely on political effectiveness as opposed to my personal views, I’ve got to give him a B. There was not much new in terms of initiatives. However, the speech was better than average and ended up highlighting Bush’s strengths.
1) Strong Points – The one strength that Bush has amid his tepid approval ratings is that he’s perceived to be strong on national security. Bush played up that portion of his record now by dedicating the first half of his speech to Iraq and the war on terrorism. If there’s one thing you can say about Dubya, no matter what you believe, it’s that you know where he stands. Bush is clear that he believes that it’s the duty of the United States to use its military power to promote democracy across the world. Whether he ought to be using our young men and women to achieve this goal even if there’s not an immediate military threat is another question, yet the Democrats continue to fail to present an alternative vision (more on that in a moment).
The President also displayed the Republicans’ great understanding of the power of language (i.e. it’s not the estate tax – it’s the “death tax”) as he turned “domestic spying” into a “terrorist surveillance program.” What looked like a highly unpopular illegal intrusion on private citizens a couple of weeks ago has morphed into a successful program that vigorously roots out Al Quaeda operatives to prevent more attacks on American soil. I’m wary about the impact that Bush’s actions in this arena could have on civil liberties, but from a political standpoint a “terrorist surveillance program” is simply brilliant.
Bush also had a “Nixon goes to China” moment when the former oil hound stated that the United States was “addicted to oil.” Whether he is truly committed to alternative energy sources remains to be seen. For now, though, Bush at least gets points for saying something new for him.
2) Weaker Points – As strong as Bush is on the subject of national security as a whole, he resorts to ineffective declarative statements about the War in Iraq. The average American is extremely wary about our presence in Iraq, so Bush repeating old statements that we’re “making progress” and containing the insurgents without presenting more concrete evidence that those things are actually happening isn’t enough.
Details about Bush’s domestic initiatives for health care and education were scant, but that was not surprising given that the speech was clearly focused on national security. Bush doesn’t seem to get high marks from the public for his performance on the economy. The irony to me is that I believe he’s done a great job at driving overall economic growth while being suspect in the national security area where he garners the strongest public approval. It’s also interesting to see how every presidential candidate seems to campaign on how we need to focus more on domestic issues – Dubya, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan all did this in their respective initial presidential campaigns – yet foreign policy almost always consumes them once they’re elected to office.
Anyway, Bush clearly backed off from domestic initiatives after the inability to get Social Security reform passed last year (I have a lot of thoughts on that subject, but that’s for another day). Not surprisingly, with the exception of the alternative energy proposal, there wasn’t much memorable on the domestic side of the speech.
3) Democratic Response – First off, the opposing party “response” needs to be eliminated. I have never seen anyone, Republican or Democrat, present anything other than a poorly canned talking point list.
At best, the opposing party response can give a bare bones complaint of the sitting President’s policies. At worst, the opposing party response can highlight the reasons why that opposing party isn’t winning elections, which is exactly what happened last night.
Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine was a good choice on paper to give the response. As I said a couple of weeks ago, the Democrats need to move to the center if they expect to win and the newly installed centrist governor from a southern state fits that bill.
However, I also said in that same post that it was even more imperative for the Democrats to have a coherent and cohesive message on national security issues that presents a real alternative to the Bush Doctrine, rather than just criticizing all of Bush’s actions. Mere critiques without alternatives would doom the Democrats to 49% near-misses in elections.
Yet, even though President Bush had just spent over half of his speech speaking passionately about national security, Gov. Kaine muttered a couple sentences buried in the middle of the response to say that there had to be a “better way” than what Bush was doing in Iraq. Then, nothing else was said about the issue that Americans are most likely to vote on.
Hammering away at domestic issues might have made sense for Clinton against Bush Senior back in 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Union, but the Democrats are digging their own graves again by not addressing national security head-on in the wake of September 11th. As dumb as Democrats may believe Bush is, they have only themselves to blame on being such dunces on how to present a message regarding national security.