It was not exactly a farewell speech, but there was still a sense of the passing of the baton at President Bush's State of the Union Monday night. This would be the last time for eight years that Mr. Bush addressed Congress, and perhaps for that reason the atmosphere was more courteous and the bipartisan applause more generous than has otherwise been the case in recent years. You could not help wonder who will be standing in that spot next year.
Panning television cameras found it irresistible to dwell on the presidential candidates. They were particularly drawn to Sen. Barack Obama, who sat next to Sen. Edward Kennedy and had just received his endorsement. The two were chit-chatting and thick as thieves. Meanwhile Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, dressed in eye-catching red, sported a thin little smile and clapped perfunctorily when it seemed impossible to avoid.
The speech itself was not one of the orations we have seen in the past, but was a commitment to finish unfinished business. What should be fundamental is that the president resist the temptation to overreach in the interest of building his own legacy - or sign poison-pill treaties in legislation in the 11th hour that the next president will have to contend with.
On foreign policy, Mr. Bush had many good things to say, and a few that will undoubtedly turn out to be a bridge too far. The conclusion of the Doha Round of the World Trade Organization this year would probably require nothing less than a miracle. Free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea would merely require a congressional coalition of Republicans and free-trade Democrats, though that may be equally hard to come by, of course.
Still, it is greatly in the interest of the United States to close those deals, not only to reach markets with tariff-free access to 100 million new consumers, but as the president pointed out: "If we fail we will embolden the purveyors of false populism." To ease the pains of labor movement due to globalization, Mr. Bush pledged renewal of the Trade Adjustment Assistance Act, which got much bigger applause from Democrats than any other reference to trade.
The president had many good things to say on energy security. His commitment to reduce dependence on oil was accompanied by a commitment to new clean energy technologies, in which he challenged Congress to double funding for the research. He also laid down the marker that any new international agreement on greenhouse emissions must include all the world's major economies, not giving China and India a pass as did the Kyoto Treaty.
The president's freedom agenda did not entirely get lost, but it did not quite have the ring to it as it did in the past when it was Mr. Bush's visionary call to action. The agenda has run into some hard realities, particularly in the Middle East. He did remind Congress, though, that the struggle against terrorism will be the "defining struggle of the 21st century," and that it is a struggle in which we do not stand alone. He even got a solid round of bipartisan applause for promising to "stay on the offensive against and deliver justice to our enemies." In the nothing-short-of-a-miracle department, Mr. Bush promised that "there will be a Palestinian state" by the end of this year. Leaders on both sides recognize the importance of peace, he said. This may be true, but other leaders, like Hamas and their supporters in Iran, recognize the importance of keeping the terrorist cauldron boiling.
It is true, nonetheless, that progress in Iraq will have a crucial impact on how the Middle East evolves in coming years. A peaceful, stable Iraq will indeed be a friend to the United States, whereas a collapsing Iraq that has become a base for terrorists will be a region-wide disaster.
Mr. Bush spent a good deal of his time outlining progress and promising developments. In cooperation with the Iraqi government, the surge is working, and working so well that the president could promise that troops will be drawn down by 20,000 next year.
"Some may deny that the surge is working," he said, b"ut among the terrorists, there is no doubt." Iraq and the fight against terrorism will for better or worse - one hopes for better - be the essential legacy of this Bush administration. As it looks now, history may well be kinder to the president than contemporary commentary has been for some time.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Times