Bush's Last SOTU

In the midst of an increasingly acrimonious presidential primary season, the country took a breather to hear President Bush deliver his final State of the Union (SOTU) address. He faced hostile Democrats, skeptical conservatives and Republican presidential candidates nervous about how they might need to gently distance themselves from the President on issues like immigration reform which have angered the conservative base.

Conservatives become alarmed before the speech began when word circulated that although he would veto any 2009 spending bills that do not halve the number of earmarks and would order agencies to ignore any pork barrel earmarks listed only in conference reports (rather than in legislation), but that he would not go after earmarks in the 2008 omnibus spending bill. That would leave in place over 11,000 earmarks.

Hillary Clinton did not wait for the speech before she criticized it in Hartford Connecticut earlier in the day, declaring that: “one thing that President Bush has never understood is that the State of the Union is not about a speech in Washington. It is about the state of the lives of the American people. What is happening in our schools, in our hospitals, in our jobs? It is whether or not we have people who feel that they are moving toward the American dream or whether it looks like it’s getting further and further away no matter how hard they work. It is about whether or not people will be able to stay in their homes or if they will lose their homes to foreclosures, thereby really undermining the American dream. It is about whether we as a nation will restore our leadership and our moral authority, bring our Constitution out of cold storage, begin to act like Americans again, solving our problems, working toward a better future, making it possible for us to be proud of our country.”

President Bush began the SOTU with a call for bipartisanship in an election year and a recognition that we are facing a time of economic “uncertainty.” He then plunged into a laundry list of policy provisions and proposals.

Beyond the earmark reform announcement, the SOTU offered few surprises and a reminder that much of the energy and verve has gone out of the Bush domestic agenda. He meekly suggested Congress start working on its own ideas for entitlement reform. He threatened to veto any bill with a tax increase and reiterated his call to make his tax cuts permanent, but absent any link to the short term stimulus package did not suggest any means by which he might force Congress’ hand. He made a pitch for free trade and specifically for passage of the Columbia free trade agreement. He also called for reauthorizing No Child Left Behind, a measure now looked upon with suspicion by both liberals and conservatives, and $300M in additional spending for school choice programming for students at underperforming schools. He pleaded for confirmation of his judicial appointees and promised to continue with measures to improve border security, while making plain that he believed illegal immigration would not be “resolved” without a comprehensive measure to address those illegal aliens already here – a sign he was not pleased by the failure of his 2007 comprehensive immigration plan. Almost unbelievably – given the experience of 2007 – the president renewed his call for comprehensive immigration reform, including his plea for a guest worker program.   

On balance, his domestic agenda has been stripped of its most ambitious and failed attempts. Social security and healthcare reform and immigration reform which were to be the cornerstones of his second term are gone. As a result, the speech had a strange disconnected tone as the “action” in the public policy debate has moved to the presidential primary races. For example, social security reform in a Clinton, McCain or Romney administration would likely be sent to a commission while health care reform will either follow a conservative free market model or one of the universal coverage schemes being pursued by the Democrats.

The greatest energy in the speech was devoted to foreign policy. He emphasized the dangers of terrorism and pledged to stay on the “offense and deliver justice to our enemies.” For Afghanistan, he announced an additional 3200 troops would be deployed. He reviewed the shift in the Iraq war strategy and the resulting progress in Iraq as violence reduced and urged Congress to continue full funding for the troops there. He lauded the U.S. military’s success in eliminating Al Qaeda forces. In a swipe at Democrats who remain unconvinced by facts he remarked:  “Some may deny the surge is working, but among the terrorists there is no doubt.  Al Qaeda is on the run in Iraq, and this enemy will be defeated,” which generated the biggest applause he receivd all night.

President Bush also offered the prospect of a shift in mission and future troop reductions, but vowed that further draw downs would be based on developments on the ground and recommendations from the military. He emphasized the need for victory in Iraq so that future generations would recognize that this generation rose to the challenge.

He expressed hope for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and warned of Iran’s growing threat. As to the latter he offered an olive branch to the Iranian people and again invited the Iranian regime to give up its nuclear ambitions with a vow that the U.S. would defend its vital interests in the Persian Gulf.

He also made clear that Congress should halt its dilly-dallying and pass the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act amendments which will expire on February 1.

The speech as a whole lacked memorable lines or grand themes and was a sign that the Bush administration’s days are dwindling and its task is mostly defensive: preventing Democratic tax increases and a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq. The divisions in the House chamber were also apparent as the Democratic side of the aisle refused to rise  on items as diverse as FISA reauthorization and funding for ethical stem cell research. In short, the speech was a timely reminder that the best the Republican president and Congress might be able to do (and the best legacy he might leave to a potential Republican successor) is to do no further harm.