Understanding the Speeches

Listening to both President George W. Bush’s second inaugural address and his 2005 State of the Union message, even before focusing on their content, one was struck by the President’s new demeanor and the confidence and sense of purpose it was meant to convey.

Not wanting to appear content to slog through a second term of half-steps, Bush conveyed a determination to define his Presidency in dramatic bold strokes. His declared resolve to both embark on a global mission to “end tyranny” and radically transform the social contract that had, for three generations, provided economic security to millions, would be nothing more than revolutionary. And a tall order for a President elected by the slimmest of margins and whose party maintains only a slight, though still important, hold on both houses of Congress.

Now it is possible to do a critical analysis of the President’s neo-conservative and messianic view of expanding democracy. Many useful pieces have already been written asking: whether tyranny can, in fact, be “eradicated”; whether democracies can be exported and implanted; whether democracies are, in fact more peaceful and less prone to giving birth to terror-groups; and whether or not the Iraq war has, in fact, advanced democracy (despite this election), enhanced the image of the US in the Middle East, and made America safer.

But before reading too much into these two speeches, a cautionary note is in order. Like his role model, Ronald Reagan, this President Bush is convinced by the power of “big ideas” to transform, not reality, but public opinion.

It is not that the President doesn’t believe in his declared mission, it’s that he knows that big visions framed in ingrained American values, like “freedom from tyranny,” even if not realizable, can win support and are easier to sell than less compelling, smaller proposals. So don’t look for the messianic message to be the Administration’s driving agenda.

–¢ Which is why, even before the commentaries were written about the State of the Union, the White House, and the President himself, were privately assuring allies of the Administration’s more moderate aims;

–¢ Which is why the White House has found it necessary to parlay the Afghan, Palestinian, and Iraqi elections as evidence of “freedom on the march” when, in fact, though important, they are far less than that;

–¢ Which is why the neoconservative response to critics of the Iraq gambit has been to portray them as “appeasers” of tyranny in an effort to silence their opposition; and

–¢ Which is why, in the face of dwindling public support for a continuing US presence in Iraq and increasing skepticism as to whether the war has been “worth the loss in life and treasure,” the White House has found it necessary to reframe and oversell the war as not only a success, but as only a part of this more all encompassing visionary campaign.

Given all of this, it may even be appropriate to characterize the President’s rhetorical flourishes as both part visionary and part diversionary.

Here is the problem President Bush faces as he begins his second term: his personal popularity is high, but the public’s approval of his job performance is low. Americans remain confident that the President has kept them safe, but they are far less comfortable with his handling of the economy and the war.

Not only that. With annual federal budget deficits now totaling over $470 billion (including the off-line $80 billion annual expenditure for Iraq) the White House faces a difficult challenge in selling both Democrats and even some Republicans on the wisdom of continuing the war, given its costs and transforming social security, which it is estimated will cost more than $750 billion over the next ten years.

When confronting such objections and stubborn realities, this White House, like that of Reagan, has found it useful to raise the rhetorical ante and use powerful symbolism in an effort to boost his stature and shame critics and move public opinion. Who remembers the missing weapons of mass destruction, the fabricated “evidence,” the “cake walk” and the ‘flowers in the streets,” the dead, the costs and the shame of Abu Ghraib–”didn’t the Iraqi and American mothers’ tearful hug at the State of the Union make the war worthwhile?

Evocative language and powerful gestures are used as substitutes for reality, to transform our view of reality and make it more acceptable. That is what those speeches were about. Which is why I caution: don’t listen to what is said, watch what is done.

Here’s my hunch: even with this election, the Iraq cauldron will continue to boil. But the President, as he has done successfully since September 11, will use the capitol he earned by redefining this struggle “to end tyranny” to cow congressional opposition to act on his domestic agenda to make his tax cuts permanent, slash domestic spending, and transform social security.