By Ron Walters
The stage was set for the State of the Union speech by a president who had one of the lowest ratings in modern history. You have to go back to Richard Nixon’s 1974 speech during the Watergate scandal to find an equivalent and as a result, Pres. Bush’s speech was just as unconvincing.
As a parallel, George Bush waited until the last moment of his speech to assert that, “the state of the Union is strong,” a statement meant to come after the “balcony politics” of referring to various people in the balcony that have done heroic things, using them to paint an image of the America that most of us know as false. It would have been better had he exhibited the honesty of Lyndon Banes Johnson, who said in his 1968 State of the Union Speech that, “the State of the Union is challenged both at home and abroad.” So, here I review some of the highlights to put it into perspective.
The question of whether this speech moved the American people will not be known for some time. The reason was part subterfuge and part old hat. Let’s first deal with the subterfuge.
Pres. Bush loaded up his speech with domestic issues to give a shiny patina to his administration and to manufacture some credibility to defend himself on the war. Thus, he emphasized positions on education or “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB), health insurance, immigration and energy, while referring to some lesser issues of earmarks, letting his judicial nominees go through and the like.
The strategy behind the first half of his speech seemed to be that he would contest Democrats and win over the public by offering them issues that would be popular. But he failed miserably with his convoluted health insurance plan, that would make those plans paid for by employers, count as earned income for tax purposes, while allowing a $7,000 deduction for individuals and $15,000 for families. The idea is that the cost of expensive plans would be driven down and every one could afford to buy private insurance.
Then, he promised that funding (now $8 billion in arrears; $57 billion by some counts) for NCLB would be increased. But people have a right to be suspect about the availability of funds, especially given his simultaneous promise to put the country on a path that would eliminate the budget deficit in five years. These numbers–set in the context of funding for the bottomless pit of the Iraq war–just don’t add up. There is not enough money to beef up so-called “failing schools” that exist mostly in poverty stricken areas where Blacks and Browns live, or to provide funding for them to go elsewhere. So, he called for more “creativity” in this program, but it needs to be scrapped and replaced.
Pres. Bush, however, plowed on, attempting to win some points by addressing global warming with a plan to boost the supply of ethanol by 2030 and support other technologies. But this has been viewed as a modest measure in light of the urgency felt in a country that experienced the warmest year on record since 1938 and is responsible for a substantial share of the carbon emissions that create greenhouse gases.
All of this was to set the stage for old hat, Pres. Bush’s attempt to defend his approach to the war in Iraq, responsible for his plummeting favorable ratings. Within his own party, Senator John Warner of Virginia, one of the most respected leaders on defense matters, has drafted a resolution against the buildup, but Pres. Bush plows ahead. His doggedness is either a personality trait, or he is frantically attempting to carve out of chaos a legacy of “victory” that at this writing, appears nonexistent. Mostly everyone, except Pres. Bush, understands that “victory,” in his terms, is not achievable.
Nonetheless, he sounds strangely like Pres. Johnson and the Vietnam era foreign policy apologists for that war, who sought also to defend it by telling the American people that if they didn’t support the war, there would be disastrous (I think he said grievous) consequences, that the Middle East would be left in chaos, etc. But the last time I looked, chaos was just what the United States had created in Iraq and in the Middle East, refusing to reign in Israel’s military operation in Lebanon, and extending their own military campaign, now into Somalia.
He also kept to the line that 9/11 was linked to Iraq, by making the assertion that if America doesn’t fight in Iraq, we will have to fight terrorism in America. But it is also true that by fighting in Iraq, we have made it more likely that we will have to deal with terrorism in successive generations, probably more so than if we had not. The fact that America has and will have to deal with terrorism is not a function of the situation in Iraq, it is a result of the historical consequences of one-sided, oil-centric foreign policy in the Middle East, that has made us complicit in the evils of the elite leadership in those countries.
What was missing, from an African-American perspective, was any mention of Katrina and the extension of benefits beyond those recently mentioned by FEMA; no mention of the deteriorating economic status of American workers and the linkage to poverty, as Wall Street does very well indeed; no mention of signing bills passed by the Democrats such as building on the Minimum Wage, no pledge not to cut Pell Grants; no mention of providing more money for stressed mothers for child care in the Welfare reform programs; and notice of the failing status of Black males; or other things that would have added real substance to a domestic program. Democrats haven’t done so either, but then, they were not in the dock.
This was a well-delivered, unmemorable speech, a feeble justification for failure, given by a president trapped in the vortex of his own untruths. Nothing more, nothing less.
(Ron Walters is the Distinguished Leadership Scholar, Director of the African American Leadership Institute and Professor of Government and Politics.)