Two Ideas Of Promise

Posted on February 3, 2006

The George Bush who stood in the House chamber Tuesday night facing members of Congress and a worldwide television audience was not a lame-duck president. When he said, in his peroration, "We will finish well . . . confident of the victories to come," he was making a promise to himself as much as he was encouraging the country's hopes for the remaining three years of his term. But he is a diminished political force, weakened by events from the Gulf Coast to the Persian Gulf and by a loss of public support. In both tone and substance, this State of the Union address was closer to the one Bill Clinton gave in 1995, just months after the Democrats had lost control of Congress, than to the speech Bush delivered a year ago, after he and his party had triumphed in the 2004 elections. That speech was a trumpet call to confident GOP majorities to take on huge challenges -- from revamping Social Security to democratizing the Middle East. Tuesday night he was bucking up a nervous collection of GOP legislators, who are looking at the worst poll ratings most of them have ever seen, and trying to placate the Democrats. The parallels to the Clinton address are striking. Clinton's plea to the politicians seated before him, a quarrelsome lot, as he well knew, was to "put aside partisanship and pettiness and pride" and "come together behind our common purpose." Bush, who knows he has squandered his mandate in even less time than it took Clinton, was also reaching out to the opposition for help. Near the top of his speech, he said that while policy differences are inevitable, they "cannot be allowed to harden into anger." He pledged to do his part to tamp down the fires. Bush had good reason to be on his best behavior. Not only was he looking at an anemic 42 percent job approval rating in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll but the tone of much of the pre-speech commentary also invited cynical reactions to everything he might say. The Post and the New York Times both ran opinion articles questioning whether the State of the Union address was anything more than a cheap bit of political theater. Some of what Bush did -- the labored rhetorical bow to the first lady, the too-familiar letter home from the Marine killed in Iraq and the introduction of his family seated in the visitors' gallery -- justified that cynicism. But there were several points where I thought Bush's statements -- and the congressional reaction -- showed where some headway might be achieved. One, oddly enough, came at the most partisan moment of the speech. When Bush acknowledged the failure of his effort to add private accounts to Social Security, the TV cameras showed Hillary Clinton leading a derisive Democratic ovation at this "good news." When the president said in the next sentence that the problem of financing Social Security and Medicare for the retiring baby boomers "is not going away" but will only get worse because of Congress's inaction, it was the Republicans' turn to cheer. And then he surprised both sides by suggesting a bipartisan congressional commission to tackle the big entitlement programs -- and all of the members cheered. Commissions are often devices for postponing action, but the only way to deal with this issue is through bipartisan agreement -- and Bush has opened the door to that possibility. The other promising moment came when he endorsed the initiative to improve America's competitiveness by increasing federal funds for scientific research and training more mathematicians, scientists and technicians. As I wrote in December, this initiative had been teed up for presidential blessing by the National Academy of Sciences, spurred on by Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico. They now have more than half the Senate co-sponsoring their legislation, and the White House announcement that Bush's budget will provide $6 billion next year and $136 billion over the next decade means that we could see a breakthrough in the teaching of those subjects and the recruitment of workers with those skills. His offerings on energy, health care and the budget were far more meager. But this initiative at least means the address could be more than a theatrical event.