EDITOR’S NOTE: National Review Online asked a group of experienced experts for their take of the president’s State of the Union address immediately after the speech or in the wee hours after. Here’s what they had to say.
Brit Hume reported that the president was interrupted by applause 61 times last night. But I prefer to judge a State of the Union by the non-applause, which can only be appreciated on TV. Think of Rep. John Lewis’s refusal to stand up when the president talked about “our love of freedom.” Or Harry Reid’s tactless decision to remain seated during the acknowledgement of Roberts and Alito. Or Charles Rangel’s hand-sitting act when Bush declared that the U.S. will never surrender to evil. Who couldn’t enjoy watching the entire Democratic side of the room lock their keisters in place when the words “Patriot Act” or “tax cuts” were mentioned. Or the sphinx-like stare of some unnamed diplomat in Arab headdress when Bush talked about the “unstable” nations of the Middle East. Then there was the tempest-tossed visage and contorted smile of Kathleen Blanco, Louisiana’s dysfunctional governor, when Bush riffed on Katrina. Hillary Clinton retained her trademark humorlessness when her husband’s name was the punch line of the speech’s one genuine joke. And, of course, there were all those idiotic grimaces on Democratic faces when they applauded the failure to reform Social Security. For all these reasons, the SOU has to be considered a success. Even at his most conciliatory, Bush continues to annoy all the right people.
President Bush was resolute, unapologetic, at moments even defiant when addressing the war on terror, Iraq, and the Democrats’ neo-isolationism. The president did a good job painting his critics as clueless pessimists. One of the best lines in the speech–”hindsight alone is not wisdom and second-guessing is not a strategy”–summed up perfectly why the Democrats have failed to convince most Americans they would keep the country safe in this dangerous, post 9/11 world. He spoke passionately about the need to win in Iraq and to promote freedom and democracy as a bulwark to terrorism. And he made up for his early fumbling in response to the Palestinian elections. Last week, the president seemed not to know how to square his desire to spread democracy in the Middle East with the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian territories. Last night, the president got it right: “Elections are vital, but they are only the beginning. Raising up a democracy requires the rule of law, and protections of minorities, and strong, accountable institutions that last longer than a single vote.” The Palestinians have yet to demonstrate they are capable of real democratic government–they are far behind the Iraqis, who in barely a year have written a constitution (albeit not a perfect one) and are learning about power sharing and minority rights. The president also made a spirited defense of his decision to direct the National Security Agency to intercept communications between foreign terrorists and their contacts and agents in the United States. Despite the best efforts of the media and the Democrats in Congress to convince Americans that the president has ordered spying on ordinary citizens, the public isn’t buying it.
But as soon as the president turned to domestic issues the speech quickly degenerated. More government-funded research into producing ethanol “not just from corn but from wood chips and stalks of switch grass” will surely go down as one of the lamest ideas ever to come out of a Republican State of the Union address. Prior to the speech, the White House spin machine raised expectations that the president would offer something more specific in the area of health-care reform, but he barely mentioned expanding health savings accounts and offered nothing more than a new commission to address needed changes in Medicare and Medicaid funding. And tax cuts earned only four short sentences out of a 50-minute address. Thank goodness the president had the opportunity to appoint at least two Supreme Court justices. Along with his generally excellent appointments to lower courts, President Bush’s only lasting domestic legacy may well rest with the appointment of Justice Alito and Chief Justice Roberts.
I generally like Bush speeches, and some of the ones he delivered post 9/11 will live as long as Americans remember their history. But I think the president misjudged the political moment last night. By putting foreign-policy front and center and tacking on a domestic affairs “to do” list at the end, he lost an opportunity to convince his restive base that his is truly a conservative administration.
Further, in the foreign-policy section, he aimed his lance at “protectionism and isolationism” when those are not the most pertinent critiques he currently faces. He really ought to have had a better answer to the democracy question: “Well, Mr. President, we’ve promoted democracy and look what it got us. Hamas in charge of the Palestinian Authority.” He might have expanded upon his cryptic hint that democracy is about more than voting. If the Palestinians are given a chance to vote Hamas out as freely as they voted them in, then we will have the first solid baby steps of freedom. International pressure can help force free elections. It worked in Nicaragua.
As for the domestic agenda, the president showed not the slightest interest in smaller government and instead proposed a series of worthy-sounding initiatives many of which will cost money, further bloat the state, and solve nothing.
I doubt he did himself or his party much good last night.
–Mona Charen, a nationally syndicated columnist, is author, most recently, of Do-Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim to Help (And the Rest of Us).
Janice Shaw Crouse
The president was as sure-footed in this speech as I’ve ever seen him. I wanted “fire in his belly” and to see street fighter as much as statesman in taking on anti-Americanism, liberal misrepresentations, and accusations.
The president did that . . . with finesse–”Second guessing is not a strategy.”
His recurring theme–there are no “alternatives to American leadership”–framed his case that the war on terrorism, surveillance of suspected terrorists and advancing democracy are essential in “freedom’s cause.” The president checked off items from his laundry list of programs and initiatives without meandering far from his theme that America must lead the world by shaping the present and the future. The president nailed his powerful conclusion about renewing the nation’s defining moral commitments.
Rhetoric doesn’t get any better than that.
But he was a bit too conciliatory. He skated carefully around key domestic issues, couching them merely as concerns and challenges that confront a hopeful nation.
In short, moral clarity, boldness, and passion on the big picture, but committee-content and lack of emphasis on specific social issues.
–Janice Shaw Crouse, Concerned Women for America.
Before the president even spoke, most Washington insiders were giving commentary on the president’s address. Because in this town, you are no one without an advance copy. News sources online were running stories on the speech’s key points such as investment in alternative energy. “President says U.S. Energy Addicted” screamed one headline. But this was all available at 8:00. More than one hour before the president uttered his first words.
After it had concluded, what was most astounding about this speech was not what was said by the president, but rather what the viewers at home saw regarding the in-house audience. It was like watching fans from Seattle and Detroit at the Superbowl. When one side of the House stood up to cheer, the other side sat in silence. There was little agreement between the Republicans and Democrats on most major points.
Here in Washington, during the last decade, we have noticed increased partisanship. In years past, Republicans and Democrats worked together in areas of common interest. Friendships were forged across the aisle. Last night all of America who tuned in saw this divide. In order for this administration, or the next administration, or the next after that to work and achieve something for the good of the nation as a whole, we need to have some common support. We will never all be cheering for the same team, but sometimes we need to find a few things to agree upon.
–Amy Kauffman is director of the Project on Campaign and Election Laws at the Hudson Institute.
The era of big ideas is over.
Bill Clinton wasn’t just part of the best (only?) punch line of last night’s State of the Union speech. He was with the president in spirit, too.
George W. Bush, hardly a great public speaker, has nevertheless made some great public speeches in the past. His address to the joint session of Congress after 9/11. His 2002 State of the Union speech–these gave even cynical speechwriting flaks like me goose bumps. Why? Because they addressed profound issues like war and justice in direct and moving ways.
Not last night. No, last night was a speech that only Bill Clinton could love. Short on grandeur and long on government action? Or should I say the appearance of government action. Wind farms? Ethanol? Competitiveness commissions? I was half expecting to hear about midnight basketball and school uniforms, too.
Some conservatives have argued the President Bush offered few specific initiatives because he has already accomplished so much: Tax cuts, transforming the Supreme Court back into a judicial, rather than legislative, body…
Perhaps. But with the Patriot Act in limbo, the NSA-security strategy under fire, and his poll numbers in the tank, the “there’s nothing left for Bush to do” argument is unpersuasive.
President Bush offered to do little last night, not because there is little to do, but because there is little he can do. Like the old joke goes “All my money is tied up in cash right now.” President Bush’s political capital is on the table and in play in Iraq.
He could have talked for an hour, going point by point through the (long!) list of good economic news, and it wouldn’t have moved his poll numbers one point. It’s all about Iraq, and there’s nothing new to say about Iraq. So he talked instead about marginal health care reforms that will be largely forgotten by next week.
Despite the president’s shrinking agenda, however, there was a great moment of communication last night. From the Democrats.
Everybody knows that Social Security must be reformed or it will collapse. Every honest person knows that in 2017 or so, Social Security will no longer take in enough money to cover its expenses. So what did it say to America when Democrats jumped to their feet last night and cheered the fact that the defeated Social Security reform? What did it tell Americans about the Democrats’ commitment to our country (as opposed to their commitment to hating Bush) when they celebrated their “success” in keeping Social Security insolvent?
However limited the president’s agenda and vision are today, he at least has a vision. He has a strategy and approach on the big issues that, agree or disagree, is coherent and relevant.
And the Democrats?
They have Nancy Pelosi and Cindy Sheehan.
The economic portion of the speech could have been better. Bush dodged his biggest problem–his profligate spending–and offered nothing substantive to reverse the striking recent growth of government. The savings he mentioned were laughably small.
The idea factory is almost running on empty. He called for another commission, this time to study the long run entitlement problem. The experience of the most recent tax-reform commission was so terrible that the next commission members will have to be drawn from individuals who have been lost at sea for at least two years. What we really need is a commission to study commissions, or at least an advisory panel to study whether we need a commission to study commissions. That panel would, of course, be bipartisan, and I am disappointed he did not mention it tonight.
The American Competitiveness Initiative includes a recommendation to make the R&D tax credit permanent, something that has been advocated by every politician (except for those who understand how the abomination works) for a zillion years. It is not going to happen. Lawmakers enjoy squeezing lobbyists every other year or so when it is up for renewal. The tax panel savaged the R&D credit. They must be very happy tonight. The headline tax proposal is to make permanent something the tax panel tried to repeal. (Please reread the last paragraph now, but do be careful not to be caught in an infinite loop.)
He also wants to increase funding for hard sciences, a solid idea. We are running out of physicists, and we need more of them.
–Kevin A. Hassett is director of economic-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
Clifford D. May
President Bush’s sixth State of the Union was not a speech that, years from now, we’ll all recall, cite and quote. But it was serviceable. It got the job done. And it had much in it that was commendable.
I would argue that it was not, as some have said, a laundry list. It was more a to-do list. It set priorities and a general direction for the country and for a congress decreasingly seized by any issue not likely to sway voters in November.
Half the speech was devoted to national security. The president did not give an inch on the war in Iraq or the broader war against what he called (twice) “radical Islam.” Nor did he concede anything on the need for the Patriot Act and for presidential power to spy on terrorists who communicate with Americans.
He addressed the Iranian people directly, speaking of his hopes for their freedom. Let’s hope this is followed with serious assistance for Iranian dissidents–something that has not been provided up till now.
Useful, too, that energy is finally getting the attention it deserves. But harnessing sunshine and wind will not end our addiction to Middle Eastern oil. Just ask Jimmy Carter. Nuclear power should make a comeback but it will reduce petroleum dependence only when plug-in hybrids are on sale at Car Max.
The president said ethanol would be made “not just from corn but from wood chips, stalks, or switch grass.” Cut the corn–a boon for Iowa farmers but too expensive and energy-intensive to produce–and progress can be made.
Bush’s suggestions on health care struck me as useful if incremental. More than that is unrealistic in an election year. Competitiveness is a reasonable concern but, as Mark Steyn has noted, not an area in which the government has established expertise.
The president made an effort to reach out to Democrats. We’ll all be riding the chairlifts in Hades before Howard Dean, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid reach back. But other Democrats may–especially if, in November, Republicans manage to retain their majorities.
–Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.
Addressing the war on radical Islam, the president proved tough, serious, determined. I’d have liked a lot less emphasis on sowing democracy throughout the Middle East and a lot more on making our own republic safe. But Bush once again demonstrated his utter determination to take the war to the enemy.
On domestic policy? The president failed to offer any unifying or overarching vision, instead offering only a little of this and a little of that. To some extent, I suppose, this was to be expected: After squandering last year on a botched scheme to revamp Social Security, he’s running out of time. But he’s also running out of ideas–conservative ideas. An “Advanced Energy Initiative?” As Jerry Taylor writes in his critique of this initiative, “If those technologies have economic merit, no subsidy is necessary. If they don’t, then no subsidy will provide it.” An “American Competitiveness Initiative?” “Isn’t there something a little ridiculous,” as Mark Steyn writes, “about the government, which has no competition, running a competitiveness initiative?”
We conservatives owe the president our support on the war, needless to say–for that matter, we owe him our admiration. But the interesting activity on domestic matters–the hard work of applying conservative principles to concrete problems–won’t be taking place at the White House anymore. It’ll be taking place among about a hundred members of the House, including Mike Pence and John Shadegg, and in the pages of certain political magazines, including–need I say?–NR.
James S. Robbins
I’m feeling déjà vu.
Tonight I have a message for the brave and oppressed people of Iraq: Your enemy is not surrounding your country–your enemy is ruling your country. And the day he and his regime are removed from power will be the day of your liberation.
Iran [is] a nation now held hostage by a small clerical elite that is isolating and repressing its people. … Tonight, let me speak directly to the citizens of Iran: America respects you, and we respect your country. We respect your right to choose your own future and win your own freedom. And our nation hopes one day to be the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran.
The United States will ask the U.N. Security Council to convene on February the 5th to consider the facts of Iraq’s ongoing defiance of the world. … If Saddam Hussein does not fully disarm, for the safety of our people and for the peace of the world, we will lead a coalition to disarm him.
The Iranian government is defying the world with its nuclear ambitions, and the nations of the world must not permit the Iranian regime to gain nuclear weapons. (Applause.) America will continue to rally the world to confront these threats.
–James S. Robbins is author of the forthcoming Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point and an NRO Contributor.
President Bush said the United States is “addicted to oil.” What a poor choice of words. It’s like saying humans are “addicted” to oxygen. The simple fact is that our modern-day economy could not exist without the inexpensive and abundant supplies of petroleum that drove the dynamism of the previous century. Oil has–quite literally–fueled our economy and provided Americans unparalleled standards of living. Oil has delivered levels of sustained economic production unimaginable a century ago. And it has helped advance the concept of personal automobility that is so much a feature of present-day America. Those are all good things.
So why did the president’s speech make it seem like using oil is, well, so dirty and wrong?
Certainly no one is happy with the wealth transfers to kleptocrats in Riyadh or agitators in Caracas. But bashing foreign oil overlooks the fact that the main supplier of crude oil to the United States is not Saudi Arabia or any other OPEC nation. It’s Canada. We should obviously look for ways to lessen our dependence on supplies from unstable parts of the world. That’s why the development of Canadian oil sands and the liberalization of Mexico’s energy sector (America’s number two supplier) are so crucial. Same with opening federal lands such as ANWR to new production. And we should look to new technologies for solutions to our most pressing energy challenges. But we shouldn’t condemn oil as some sort of narcotic or poison when it does so much to enrich our daily lives.
–Max Schulz is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute covering energy and the environment.
In the weeks leading up to his fifth State of the State address, President Bush had drifted into the doldrums that have beset so many second-term presidents. Relatively low poll numbers indicated that the public was losing confidence in Forty-Third’s ability to lead.
Bush’s commanding performance Tuesday evening went far to demonstrate that this president is not only in charge of the ship of state, but also that he is determined to steer America to a brighter future.
No laundry list, this speech; it had less the feel of a constitutionally required report to Congress than of an inaugural address. In fact, this SOTU could be regarded as Part II of the second inaugural address Bush delivered 12 months ago. Both speeches presented rhetorically powerful visions of freedom’s vast horizon. To a president who needed to reconnect with the American people and reestablish his administration’s sense of purpose, the timbre and timing were perfect.
Democrats must once again find themselves flummoxed by Bush’s eloquence. Tuesday he served notice to all manner of opponents that he is no lame duck; that he is ready to do battle in the midterm elections later this year; that he remains devoted to the march of freedom abroad; and that he refuses to preside over the decline of the American republic at home. Alexander Hamilton, who gave us the term “energy in the executive,” would surely have been proud.
–Gleaves Whitney is director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University.