The State of the Union: A Closer Look

President Bush delivered his fifth State of the Union address last week against the backdrop of low approval ratings, new setbacks for US policy in the Middle East and a series of scandals that have damaged public trust in his party and Administration.

Analysts agreed that the President needed a strong performance to jump start his effort to take control of the public debate. In the weeks leading up to this State of the Union, White House operatives skillfully maneuvered to set the stage for the President’s remarks. Administration and Republican Party spokespersons made the media rounds, previewing themes and the President, himself, made a number of unscripted public appearances in an effort to build momentum leading up to the speech.

By any measure, it was to be one of the more important speeches of Bush’s presidency. With a job approval rating of 39% and public confidence in the Republican Party at a low point, a rebound is needed before November lest Republicans lose control of Congress in November 2006. This would not only block the President’s efforts to pass legislation, but would also subject the White House to a series of potentially troublesome hearings and investigations on a range of issues.

How did he do?

Given the stakes, most agreed that the speech did not live up to expectations. It was well crafted and delivered with ease. For his part, the President appeared, as expected, optimistic and confident. He was more relaxed than he had been in some of his earlier addresses, even displaying flashes of humor.

One half of the speech focused on foreign policy and national security issues, the other half on domestic matters. But while long on principles and thematics, this State of the Union fell short on details. Despite the air of confidence, some saw in this speech a more cautious and even humbled George Bush. There were no bold pronouncements, no boasts of big victories, and no dramatic new programs or initiatives.

Let’s take a closer look:

Probably the biggest headline getter was the President’s declaration that "America is addicted to oil." The way out of this bind? Technology. What followed in the speech were a number of ideas packaged under the title of an "Advanced Energy Initiative"–”that would, the President pledged "replace more than 75% of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025…making our dependence on Middle East oil a thing of the past."

Given the public mood, this was a guaranteed applause line, but on closer scrutiny, the pledge appears rather hollow. Analysts noted that Bush had made similar pledges in the last four State of the Union speeches. And that every US president since Nixon, in 1973, had promised the same thing.

Furthermore, it ignored realities. In our interdependent world economy, where the US is increasingly dependent on its trade relationship with Europe, China, and South Asia, reliance on "Middle East oil" will remain a fact of life for the world for the foreseeable future. And since the Middle East oil represents less than 20% of US consumption–”75% of less than 20% in 2025 is a less than ambitious goal.

In any case, the day after grabbing headlines, this underwhelming proposal was repudiated by the President’s own Energy Secretary and Chief Economic Advisor.

Another area where backtracking was in evidence was on the thorny topic of Social Security reform. Fully one-fifth of last year’s State of the Union was focused on the President’s commitment to revamp this massive federal insurance program. After a six-month effort to sell this initiative, which Bush hoped would become one of the major achievements of his Administration, the President surrendered. His response in this year’s State of the Union was to call for yet another commission to study the issue.

Even while discussing the topic where the President becomes the most impassioned and visionary–”his commitment to fight terror and replace tyranny with democracy–”the rhetoric was more tempered than past State of the Unions. Osama Bin Laden (who, by the way, received his first ever mention in any State of the Union address) and Ayman al-Zawahiri are still on the loose publicly and defiantly challenging the US, Middle East elections have brought mixed and less than desirable results, and the public is growing weary of our military engagement in Iraq. Given this, the best the President could do was state his case with optimism and confidence and decry his opponents as isolationists who reject America’s role in the world and defeatists who "refuse to accept anything other than failure."

In the end, there was little in this State of the Union that was new or bold. Was it a missed opportunity or does it mean that the Administration has decided to buy time and delay making a major push until later in the year?

I, for one, assume the latter. I believe that the White House goal during this period has been to restore confidence among the Republican faithful. Bush, as Messenger in Chief, had limited objectives in this speech: to appear confident and optimistic, to appear open to bipartisanship, while decrying his opponents as "weak-kneed second guessers" and to project the principles and values that continue to guide his Administration’s philosophy.

This he did. The rest will, no doubt, come in the fall (as, you might recall, was the White House strategy in 2002).