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January 26, 2007

2007 SOTU: Economy on the Verge

Coordinated outfits, strategically selected aisle seating, pre-event chit-chat through forced smiles, congressmen and dignitaries, generals and judges. It must be another State of the Union address.

What you detect here isn’t cynicism, though. It’s realism. SOTUs have never been noted for their surprises, and this year’s was, well, no surprise. In advance of President Bush’s address to the joint session of Congress, aides went out of their way to describe the unsurprising qualities of the speech: It would be “thematic,” they said, and “non-confrontational,” too.

Cynicism, however, is the easy response to most SOTU addresses. There was the spectacle of Dennis “Department of Peace” Kucinich eagerly positioning himself to be the first to shake the President’s hand; Sheila Jackson-Lee and Jesse Jackson, Jr., shamelessly angling for the cameras; and the gaggle of junior members flocking around the President with special-interest laundry lists after the speech. Sadder still was the time spent by the network news anchors dissecting Nancy Pelosi’s fashion statement for the evening. To be sure, Brit Hume has many fine journalistic qualities – but he’s no Vera Wang. (Madame Speaker’s pearl necklace, if you haven’t heard, goes for $35,000.)

Then there was the sight of Dick Cheney and Nancy Pelosi over the President’s right and left shoulders, respectively, creating the evening’s study in contrast. It was almost like the old cartoons – an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other – and both whispering to the protagonist what course he should take. (In this instance, Beelzebub bore a gavel, not a pitchfork.)

However, a few chuckles at the absurdities of the evening shouldn’t overshadow the importance of the event. It is, after all, a constitutional mandate that the President “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient…”

Arguably, this duty takes on a special significance in a divided government, and after one and a half terms in office, this is President Bush’s first. On this count, the President did a bang-up job. His opening remarks on the nation’s first “Madame Speaker,” together with his words of congratulation to Democrats, were classy and conciliatory gestures. Even for the more cynical among us, there is something refreshing about this man who, as one of the most controversial presidents in modern history, still seems to believe in the “new tone” he hoped to bring to Washington six years ago.

So what can we say of the speech itself?

If – and this is a big “if” – the content of a SOTU really matters that much, this one could’ve been better, but it could’ve been worse. It was almost as though there really were an angel and a demon on the President’s shoulders, and he wasn’t quite sure to whom he should listen.

Take the President’s economic program, which revolved around three principal reforms. First, balancing the federal budget – and doing it without raising taxes. The President noted that the deficit has already been halved three years ahead of the 2009 schedule; now Congress should ensure the elimination of the federal deficit in the next five years. So far, so good.

Second, congressional earmark reform. Some 13,000 earmarks constituted $18 billion of federal spending in 2005 alone; the President wants that amount cut in half by the end of this session, and votes and sponsors’ names attached to every earmark from here out. Still okay, but why not move to eliminate earmarks completely?

Third, Mr. Bush tackled federal entitlements, and that’s where things took a dive. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, he said, are “commitments of conscience” that must be kept permanently sound. “Affordable and available health care,” as it turns out, constitutes a government “obligation to care for the elderly, the disabled and for children.”

The President’s move for tax deductions for private health insurance was certainly a light in the entitlement-ridden darkness, but even that was dampened by his call for federal subsidies to states trying to cover the uninsured. (Somehow, the thought of our tax dollars going to buoy California’s Schwarzeneggerian health-care boondoggle doesn’t sound too reassuring.) In any case, it’s safe to assume that Mr. Bush’s reform-minded calls – the good and bad alike – fell upon deaf ears on both sides of the aisle.

Energy policy was another mixed bag for conservatives. The urgent call for energy independence is a worthy end, but the means outlined to achieve it aren’t what conservatives had hoped for. Mr. Bush proposes to subsidize clean-coal technology, solar, wind energy and nuclear power. Mandatory fuel standards, he says, will help as well. Ethanol, as it turns out, is the silver bullet for every policy problem and can help America reduce gasoline usage by 20 percent in the next ten years, cutting oil imports from the Middle East by three-quarters. In addition, the mere mention of ethanol can put a Cheshire-cat grin on the faces of Iowa’s two senators – the liberal Tom Harkin and the conservative Charles Grassley.

All very laudable, all very unlikely. As things stand, ethanol production is expensive and impractical. If every ear of corn in the country were given over to this purpose, oil consumption would be reduced by only 12 percent … not to mention creating a serious shortage of grits. In addition, while reducing our foreign energy dependency, ethanol production of this magnitude would consume more energy than could ever be economically feasible. As for the rest of the list, one was left wondering if Mr. Bush had ever heard of market-based solutions.

If the President wants to get serious about energy independence, let’s name the problem: Radical Islamists destabilizing oil-rich regimes. And the solution: More refining capacity, more offshore drilling and less resistance to tapping into that vast wasteland otherwise known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Fortunately, President Bush’s words on Iraq – which every listener was waiting to hear, and every pundit was waiting to dissect – were true to the mark.

“To win the war on terror,” the President said, “we must take the fight to the enemy.” To the critics, he added, “Our success in this war is often measured by the things that did not happen.” Indeed, who would have thought that five and a half years after 9/11, the United States would not have suffered another devastating terrorist attack?

Most impressive was the fact that the President, in spite of so much derision at the course he has taken, maintained his strong moral language in describing the war – a fight between good and evil – reminiscent of those Reaganesque speeches he gave in the days immediately following September 11, 2001. “America is still a nation at war,” he said, warning that this war is our “decisive ideological struggle.”

For all the criticism he has received, and in spite of the mistakes he has admittedly made, let’s hope and pray that George W. Bush’s legacy will be victory in this, America’s decisive ideological struggle. As for the President’s domestic policies, those criticized in this column as affronts to the Constitution, federalism and the free market, we can only hope that they enjoy the same “success” as Speaker Pelosi’s first 100 hours.

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