When he delivers important speeches, President Bush benefits from being “misunderestimated,” to borrow a malapropism he muttered during his campaign four years ago. His acceptance speech at the Republican Convention in 2000, his inaugural address, his speech to the Joint Session of Congress after the 9/11 terror attacks, and his first two State of the Union addresses all were favorably received by the news media and by most Americans. Until now, all Bush had to do was read a prepared text without stumbling and the press would applaud and the public would breathe a sigh of relief.
But his luck ran out with his recent State of the Union speech. It was the most partisan and pedestrian major speech he has ever given. Fox News’ Fred Barnes declared that, while he’d heard Bush deliver many eloquent speeches, “this was not one of them.” The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page called the speech “generally lackluster.” And a Newsweek survey conducted after the speech found that 52 percent of voters don’t want Bush to win reelection.
Inexplicably, Bush abandoned the techniques that had served him and his speechwriters so well since his first presidential race. Up until now, Bush was careful to convey the impression that he is “a compassionate conservative” who feels and tries to heal other people’s pain. But in this State of the Union speech, he offered no condolences to the families of those who have been killed or wounded in Iraq, or commiseration with those who are still out of work here at home. Did his speechwriters forget to include what would usually be a routine expression of human sympathy for others’ suffering? Did Bush and his usually alert communications adviser Karen Hughes fail to notice what was missing? Most likely, military families and households with jobless workers did notice that Bush didn’t mention their plight. And they’ll remember in November.
Gone, too, was Bush’s usual tone of nonpartisan national leadership. Typically, he avoids the words “Republican” or “Democrat,” refrains from attacking his adversaries or answering their arguments and finds ways to praise leaders from the other side of the aisle, such as Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). But this State of the Union speech consisted largely of responses to criticisms of the Patriot Act, the Iraq War and his tax cuts. And it was filled with not-so-veiled references to his rivals in this year’s election, finding ways to attack gay marriage initiatives in John Kerry’s Massachusetts and Howard Dean’s Vermont and trial lawyers such as Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.).
Bush didn’t mention his most visionary program — revisiting the moon and conducting a mission to Mars. And he offered only a brief explanation of his most controversial proposal — a new guest worker program. But he did call for an end to the use of steroids by athletes (but what about the body-building governor of California?).
Absent also were memorable phrases (instead of “the axis of evil,” there was the clumsy circumlocution “weapons of mass destruction-related programs”), a forward-looking agenda for domestic policy or an overarching theme to define Bush’s presidency for the voters this year and historians in years to come. Many previews of the speech suggested that Bush would call for an “ownership society,” presenting his proposals for partially privatizing Social Security, offering tax credits for families purchasing their own health coverage and making top-bracket tax cuts permanent, as if they would help most Americans to accumulate wealth. But the word “ownership” appeared only once in the speech, and the only unifying idea was the repetition of the word “war” 12 times. While Bush has striven to cast himself as a modern-day Winston Churchill, confronting dangers that others refuse to recognize, this speech recalled Churchill’s famous remark when he rejected a dessert placed in front of him: “This pudding has no theme.”
Worst of all, the speech framed the choice confronting Congress and the country as: “We can go forward with confidence and resolve … or we can turn back to old policies and divisions.” Other presidents, among them Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, have used this rhetorical device when running for reelection, but, by the time they were saying this, each could make a plausible case that the nation was in better shape than when he had taken office. Now, the economy is doing better than it was halfway through Bush’s first term but not nearly as well as when he was inaugurated. So what would Bush argue that America shouldn’t “turn back” to? An economy that approached full employment? A federal surplus of more than $200 billion? A more peaceful world where America enjoyed more prestige? In his attempt to cast the Clinton years as the bad old days, the worst Bush can conjure is “the dangerous illusion that terrorists are not plotting and outlaw regimes are no threat to us” (views that Clinton never held) and “the old policies and old divisions” (although the nation’s political life is even more polarized than it was four years ago).
Precisely because it sounded more like a stump speech than a State of the Union message, Bush’s rhetoric offers a preview of the language he’ll use in the reelection campaign. While he would never say, “The only thing I have to offer is fear itself,” the entire speech was framed by the report on the war on terror. Its sequence was revealing — first the counterattack against al-Qaeda, then the victory in Afghanistan against the Taliban, and, only then, the war with Iraq and the capture of Saddam. Implicitly, this presents the Iraq war as one more successful engagement in the continuing conflict with international terrorism. Turning to domestic issues, the speech uses the focus-group-tested lexicon recommended by Republican pollster Frank Luntz, calling the estate tax the “death tax” and tax cuts “tax relief.” And he continues to hide the tax cuts for top-bracket earners, wealthy investors and heirs to huge inheritances behind the less substantial benefits for most Americans — increasing the child tax credit, reducing the “marriage penalty” and “cut[ting] taxes on small business.”In his longest speech ever, he glossed over the realities of the country’s condition and Americans’ lives — how many jobs have been lost (more than 2 million), how many families have lost their health insurance (3.4 million), how little wages have increased (less than 1 percent) and how high the deficit has grown (to almost $500 billion). For those who are challenging Bush, the challenge is to discuss the real state of the union clearly and convincingly.