In the days leading up to last night's State of the Union, journalists and pundits gravely informed us that this was President Bush's most important speech. He would have to juggle the twin threats of a weak economy at home and an increasingly unpopular and ill-conceived war abroad. Public confidence in his leadership was on the wane, and his presidency stood on a precipice, poised to tumble and shatter if he did not rise to the occasion.
How did he do?
Bush responded to these lofty expectations with a robust domestic agenda. The common theme among his proposals is that the solution must be long-term in nature and rooted in Bush's sense of equity and opportunity. To revive the economy, Bush advocates permanent, growth-oriented tax cuts rather than one-time steroid shots like rebates or temporary tax "holidays." Rather than shy away from the most controversial element of his tax plan - ending the double taxation of dividends - Bush confronts it head on, claiming the moral high ground that perplexed the class warriors in the efforts to end death taxes and the marriage penalty. While it is "fair" to tax a company's profits, Bush told us, it is "not fair to again tax the shareholder on the same profits."
Bush evoked the theme of generational equity in making his case for personal retirement accounts carved out of a portion of their Social Security pay roll taxes, saying "we must offer younger workers a chance to invest in retirement accounts that they will control and they will own." On Medicare, Bush used an equity argument that strikes at the heart of Congress and preemptively paints his Capitol Hill opponents as hypocrites. He announced that his reform plan will resemble Congress' own highly regarded health system: "Just like you, the members of Congress, members of your staffs, and other federal employees, all seniors should have the choice of a health care plan that provides prescription drugs." What's good for the goose,...
Finally, Bush established a standard for growth in government spending, also rooted in equity, that ordinary Americans struggling with their family budgets will appreciate. Link future growth in the federal budget to growth in the family budget, in this case four percent. With large projected increases for the Department of Defense and a new $6 billion bio-terror initiative in the Department of Homeland Security, this means most other domestic agencies will see no increase in spending. As Bush said elsewhere in his speech, this is a "good start."
These proposals, perhaps buoyed by a possible retirement on the Supreme Court, guarantee that 2003 will continue the recent trend of unrestrained political warfare on Capitol Hill.
If the spirit of Winston Churchill suffused last years's State of the Union, the ghost of Abraham Lincoln entered this year as Bush turned to the war on terror. Consider this passage: "Our war against terror is a contest of will, in which perseverance is power. In the ruins of two towers, at the western wall of the Pentagon, on a field in Pennsylvania, this Nation made a pledge, and we renew that pledge tonight: Whatever the duration of this struggle, and whatever the difficulties, we will not permit the triumph of violence in the affairs of men - free people will set the course of history." One hears a President who still mourns the dead of September 11th even as he prepares us for the long struggle that lies ahead. Just as the Union victory at Gettysburg convinced Lincoln that the Union would ultimately prevail, the arrest of 3,000 suspected terrorists and the successful prevention of several terrorist plots in the last year -- including the terorist cell in Buffalo - give this President an obvious and overwhelming confidence that America will do the same.
As with his domestic agenda, Bush used this speech to stand his ground and, indeed, charge forward in the face of mounting criticism. Was it a mistake to define Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an "Axis of Evil?" No, says Bush, because each of these three regimes are unique and "different threats require different strategies." Would he back away from the Bush Doctrine's justification of unilateral action in the face of an imminent threat? One week after the French ambush at the United Nations, Bush reiterated his oft-stated view that America's national interest stands at the center of our foreign policy, saying: "the course of this Nation does not depend on the decisions of others. Whatever action is required..., I will defend the freedom and security of the American people." Isn't there a role for containment in the war on terror? " Trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy," he said, "and it is not an option."
And what about Iraq? Would the President agree with the pacifist Left that Saddam Hussein poses no threat to the U.S. and back off?
Judging from the number of House members and Senators who stood and applauded the President's latest, and most thorough, indictment of the homicidal regime in Iraq, one suspects that the naysaying and carping of recent weeks from some quarters of Capitol Hill will end abruptly. At the heart of the recent surge in skepticism with respect to our campaign to disarm Iraq is the implication that the U.S. and the U.N. inspectors shoulder the burden of proof to find the weapons of mass destruction. Bush deftly turned that premise around, laying it on Saddam's doorstep. "It is up to Iraq," he emphasized, "to show exactly where it is hiding its banned weapons … lay those weapons out for the world to see … and destroy them as directed."
Perhaps more than anything else, last night the President knew he needed to link Saddam and all of his evil to al Qaida and the war on terror. Convince the American people that the forthcoming campaign against Iraq - if there is one - is but one piece of a much larger puzzle. The essence of this argument is that, as Bush put it, "secretly, and without fingerprints, he could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists, or help them develop their own"
"Imagine," Bush continued, "those 19 hijackers with other weapons, and other plans - this time armed by Saddam Hussein. It would take just one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known."
One imagines that, upon hearing this scenario, many members of Congress cringed and realized that, with these words, Bush upped the stakes considerably for those who publicly oppose the likely confrontation with Saddam's Iraq. Seems like a successful speech to this observer.
Michael Franc is Vice President for Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.