A meeting at the White House with a senior administration official on the eve of the State of the Union address provided us with a revealing look at the president’s determination to tackle the “big issues,” at home and abroad. It was clear on the following evening that President Bush’s priorities would separate the urgent from the merely important, reflecting his belief that a president can’t “let the inevitable noise in Washington” distract him.
As we were told Monday, “the farm bill is an important issue, but it’s not a big issue.” Thus, during Tuesday’s speech we were spared the typical State of the Union filler that would quantify the number of new homeowners aided by HUD, or highlight details on outreach to veterans, or share the latest news on medical breakthroughs courtesy of the NIH. Important, but not “big.” The speech represented the public-policy version of President Bush’s pledge to usher in a “responsibility era.” This is exactly what we heard Monday about the president’s intent to “challenge Congress” not to skirt the big issues, but deal with them.
And he’s confident, in contrast to his critics, that he deals with the deficit. The president is confident that his pro-growth tax-cut package will have the federal budget “heading toward balance” and he actually welcomes the bind Democrats find themselves in when they complain about the deficit while proposing billions in new spending.
The big issue internationally remains the war against terrorism, and the imperative of disarming Saddam is a crucial part of that struggle. The attacks of September 11 convinced the president that he dare not dismiss the possibility of another, even more lethal, no longer unthinkable, assault on American citizens. The “connection between a despot with weapons of mass destruction and a shadowy network,” makes the risk of inaction higher, in the president’s view, than the undeniable risks of action. Here, the president believes that character counts. We were told that a president must “build credibility so when it’s time to spend capital, people put stock in his assessment.”
Representing those of his generation who rejected the Left’s indictment of America when they met up with it on their campuses over 30 years ago, the president’s conviction that America is a force for good in the world provided the subtext on Tuesday evening. “The American flag stands for more than our power and our interests” Bush told his audience.
This is why the State of the Union wasn’t “two speeches” as the conventional wisdom has it, but one whole integrated by Bush’s vision of the decency and generosity that characterizes America, and motivates its exertions abroad. We were told a couple of times Monday that Bush’s vision seeks two goals, “compassion” and “peace,” and, in the sense that they both inform his view of America, they are closely related. Because, as we were told Monday, “a check helps, but there is no love”; the president wants to engage what he believes is the charitable and caring disposition of American volunteers to assist personally the desperate and disadvantaged. This “compassion” agenda transferred to the international scene accounts for his African AIDS initiative, with the president pledging an unprecedented sum to fight the scourge and relieve the suffering.
After setting the predicate of America’s moral commitment to aid the most unfortunate at home and abroad, the president turned Tuesday night to America’s historically benevolent role in international affairs: “We exercise power without conquest, and we sacrifice for the liberty of strangers.” In the past “the ambitions of Hitlerism, militarism, and communism were defeated,” by free people in alliance with “the might of the United States of America.” On Monday we were told that the president believes that “it’s worth the effort to try to bring our friends along,” but he is untroubled by French or German opposition to military action against Saddam. The president assumes, matter of factly, that “they just don’t see the threat.” A president who so comfortably stated on Tuesday that “this call of history has come to the right country,” is also comfortable dismissing international criticism assigning dark motives to America’s intentions.
Once military action is undertaken, the president is utterly committed to seeing it through. On Monday we were told repeatedly that any action will bring to bear “a display of allied might.” “We’re not sending them in with popguns.” “If we go, Saddam is gone.” It was noted that critics complained about Afghanistan going wrong at various points in that campaign, but the president stood firm. He is not going to be deterred by opposition abroad or at home, if he sees a threat to American security. It’s the president’s job “to protect our country from harm.”
Is all this leadership Reaganesque? Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine had a cover story by Bill Keller making the case that it is. When the piece was brought up on Monday we were brusquely assured that the president “didn’t read it.” A quick glimpse in the president’s in-box revealed what he is reading: The Wit and Wisdom of Winston Churchill.”
When President Bush challenged the U.N. last September to confront Iraq’s chronic defiance of its repeated demands, he was asking the Security Council to do no more than he has resolved to do himself. When it comes to meeting challenges, we were told that the president believes that “one thing history will record is that we saw problems and dealt with them.”