"As we gather tonight," President Bush began his first State of the Union address to the nation, "our nation is at war, our economy is in recession, and the civilized world faces unprecedented dangers." Yet, "the state of our union has never been stronger."
How can that be? "This time of adversity," Bush explained, "offers a unique moment of opportunity."
So began the first wartime State of the Union in more than a quarter century. Short on the laundry list of domestic policy proposals that dominated President Clinton's addresses, last night's speech was a clarion call to the American people to stay alert, engaged, and supportive of the war effort.
Evoking Winston Churchill, Bush used last night's speech to prepare Americans for a long, but noble struggle against the forces of international terrorism. Aware that citizens in open democracies like ours often find it difficult to enter into and sustain their enthusiasm for prolonged wars, Bush devoted a substantial portion of his remarks to the larger significance of the events of September 11th. To Bush, the war against terrorism has become a surprising source of strength and renewal for America, requiring us to "lead the world toward the values that will bring lasting peace." These values are the "nonnegotiable demands of human dignity" and include the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women, private property, free speech, equal justice, and religious tolerance.
As Britain waited anxiously in October 1941 for the German invasion that never came, Churchill spoke to the students at Harrow School. Sensing despondency, he cautioned them not to speak of "darker" days, but of "sterner" ones. "These are not dark days," Churchill said, "these are great days - the greatest days our country has ever lived; and we must all thank God that we have been allowed, each of us according to our stations, to play a part in making these days memorable in the history of our race." Last night, President Bush urged the assembled Members of Congress to see the events of September 11th in a comparable light. "In a single instant," he said, " we realized that this will be a decisive decade in the history of liberty... Rarely has the world faced a choice more clear or consequential." Just as Churchill used unequivocal language to describe Hitler's Nazi regime ("...a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark lamentable catalogue of human crime"), Bush described organized world terrorism in equally stark and absolute terms. He described an enemy with evil designs on our cities, landmarks, nuclear power plants, and public water facilities; an enemy that sends "other people's children on missions of suicide and murder;" an enemy that embraces "tyranny and death as a cause and a creed."
Bush answered the speculation concerning the next phase of the war by defining the scope of the terrorist threat to which we must respond in the broadest possible terms, to include terrorist networks in the Phillippines, Bosnia, Somalia, and the rogue regimes in North Korea, Iran, and, most ominously, Iraq. Again using terminology from the war against fascism, Bush characterized these states and their allied terrorist networks as an "axis of evil." The clear message is that the U.S. sees international terrorism as a continuum, with interconnected branches, cells and sponsors throughout the world. The next phase, already inaugurated with the deployment of U.S. troops to the Phillippines, may escalate at any moment. Bush sounded especially determined to dispense once and for all with Saddam Hussein's brutal and cravenly ambitious dictatorship in Iraq.
Equally significant, Bush appears to have seized the opportunity presented by the war to push for what military experts refer to a "revolution in military affairs," specifically an overhaul of our aging aircraft and reforms to make the military more "agile."
While downplayed overall, Bush did raise several important domestic issues. First, Bush's embrace last night of tax credits for the more than 40 million Americans lacking health insurance goes well beyond the scope of last year's proposal, which would have only reached the much smaller number of unemployed, and puts Republicans on the offense on a health care issue for the first time in living memory. Second, the President brushed aside the hoards of quivering Republican political consultants and embraced bold Social Security reform that would allow "personal retirement accounts for younger workers who choose them." Bush also warmed conservative hearts with his call for making last year's tax cuts permanent and for passing energy legislation that would "increase energy production at home so America is less dependent on foreign oil."
While the President established a laudable goal for welfare reform ("reduce dependency on government and offer every American the dignity of a job"), he nevertheless neglected to mention the overriding importance of marriage promotion to the upcoming reform effort. Those watching for signs of Bush triangulation found it in his continuing collaboration with that most unlikely of allies, Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), in Bush's call for a Patient's Bill of Rights and an expanded Peace Corps.
Michael Francis vice president of government relations at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.