Five observations on the State of the Union Address:
1. The president has turned in many strong performances in the past; but Tuesday night’s address was the first one in which he seemed actually to enjoy himself. He seemed to savor the chance to take his case before the nation. I did not get the impression, as I have during some of his past performances, that a part of him wanted to be elsewhere. In the State of the Union Address we had an intimation of how effective the president is likely to be in the fall.
2. The president’s success was easily gauged: you had only to look at the faces of his demoralized opposition on the floor of the House. And I do not mean simply the histrionic head shaking of Senator Kennedy, or the shell-shocked eyes and fixed smile of Representative Pelosi as she read her rebuttal afterward, as though in a trance. The shattered look on Senator Clinton’s face was in some ways more telling. It is, of course, in Mrs. Clinton’s interest that the president prevail in 2004, thereby preserving unimpaired her chance to run in 2008. But no matter what a politician’s interest might be, he or she can never be at ease when confronted with the mastery of a rival practitioner. Such as she
be never at heart’s ease,
Whiles they behold a greater than themselves.
Mrs. Clinton’s face revealed the extent of her ambitious discontent.
3. As I watched the president’s delivery, remarkable for its restrained strength and easy authority, I could not help but compare it to the image, still replaying itself in my mind, of Governor Dean’s acknowledgement, on the previous night, of his third-place finish in Iowa, which culminated in the curiously falsetto “Yaaaarrrrr” that has been so much remarked upon. And yet until very recently the governor was considered by many people to be, by virtue of his oratorical gifts and personal magnetism, the Democratic candidate most capable of winning hearts this year. On hearing of Bonaparte’s victory at Austerlitz in 1805, William Pitt the Younger pointed to the map of Europe in the cabinet and said, “Roll up the map; it will not be wanted these ten years.” As I watched Tuesday night I wondered whether some of the Democrats on the floor of the House, comparing the respective performances of the governor and the president, were not quietly preparing to write off the 2004 presidential contest in the way Pitt was forced to write off Napoleonic Europe.
4. Whoever in the administration wrote the sentence in which the president–citing complaints that the United States failed to “internationalize” the Iraq war–went on to recite a Homeric catalog-of-ships listing America’s allies in the conflict certainly earned his paycheck this month.
5. One gripe. The president has in recent months demonstrated a remarkable technical mastery of his office: He has learned how to use the office to surprise and startle, as well as to seize the initiative and frame the public debates to his own advantage. The visit to Baghdad on Thanksgiving Day, the proposals on space exploration and immigration, the recess appointment of Judge Pickering, all reveal an ever more adroit tactician. The State of the Union Address was a similar demonstration of how sure the president’s political instincts have become. Unfortunately these instincts have led the president to settle for the mere appearance of progress in certain areas, most notably where schools and entitlements are concerned. Prescription-drug benefits are good politics; criticism of the teachers unions’ monopoly of public education, apparently, is not. A lot of presidential talk in these areas; very little reform.
To be fair to the president, his political capital is not unlimited, and he has decided to devote the bulk of it to the prosecution of the war on terrorism. To his credit, he has taken enormous political risks to prosecute the war fully and effectively. But could he not devote a little more capital to, say, fixing schools–even if it means foregoing an appearance at Boston Latin School with Senator Kennedy?
My hunch is that the president means to repair the shortcomings of his first term’s domestic policy during his second. But this will, I think, prove difficult. The bureaucracy is very often more intransigent in a second administration than in a first. By the dawn of a second term the civil servants have figured out the chief’s operating style and have learned how to evade his directives. Many of the president’s own men, moreover, will by the dawn of a second administration have been captured by the very people they were sent to tame. How quickly they all go native! It might be called State Department Syndrome, for the first symptoms of the disease very often appear at Foggy Bottom.
President Nixon understood the difficulty very well, although the way he went about addressing it was a trifle extreme. On November 8, 1972, the day after his landslide victory over George McGovern, Nixon summoned the White House staff to the Roosevelt Room at 11:00 A.M. After perfunctorily thanking them he left Bob Haldeman to demand their resignations. “Thanks, guys–and by the way, you’re fired.” An hour later the same ceremony was repeated with Cabinet. It was an effective if heavy-handed way of guaranteeing his continued authority.
The other difficulty in a second term lies with the president’s own partisans in Congress. They know how eager a reelected president is to do the right thing, whatever the political consequences–for never again will he have to confront an electorate. The lifers on the Hill are not about to let a reelected president get away with burnishing his entry in Dictionary of American Biography at the expense of their own future livelihoods. Thus have so many grand second-term initiatives come to nothing. Perhaps President Bush (assuming he is reelected) will find a way to surmount these obstacles. But it won’t be easy.
–Michael Knox Beran is the author of Jefferson’s Demons: Portrait of a Restless Mind and The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the End of American Aristocracy.