January 21, 2004

January 21, 2004 | WebMemo on Political Thought

The State of the Union: A Call To Arms

There was a clarion call to arms in last night's State of the Union address when the President recounted the challenges America faces at home and abroad and sternly told the joint session of Congress and an election year audience that: "We can go forward with confidence and resolve or we can turn back... to the old policies and old divisions."

This sense that America stands perched on a historical precipice, a Nation striving to move forward but facing formidable resistence from those stuck in the past, permeated last night's speech. The President positioned himself to lead America out of these thickets, and painted a picture of an America where some extol our accomplishments in the war against terrorism while others question whether "America really is at war at all" or are tempted simply to believe that "the danger is behind us." Some argue that American foreign policy interests must be synchronized with our European allies and the United Nations, others agree with the President's unilateralist instinct that "America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our people." Some embrace the President's economic vision of lower taxes, a more rational legal system, and abundant domestic sources of energy, while others hope to raise our taxes, make us dependent on foreign energy, and place government ahead of the individual.

A Contentious Agenda

The convenient juxtaposition of Monday's Iowa primary and last night's State of the Union address only underscores the extent to which the 2004 presidential campaign will provide Americans with the widest philosophical divide since the 1980 election between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. Not surprisingly, Bush's several admonitions to Congress were directed squarely at his critics there, virtually all of whom are liberal, and Democrats. Perhaps this newfound directness reflects the three years of mounting frustrations that Bush and his allies have experienced in their dealings with such an ideologically divided Congress and their hope that bright line differences on important issues will yield electoral gains.

Some of those battles will occur over the expiring parts of the Bush agenda. Specifically, Bush noted that the Patriot Act, which provides law enforcement agencies with the same legal tools to identify and apprehend terrorists that have long been available to catch drug kingpins and mobsters, will expire next year. He minced no words in telling each member of Congress that "you" need to renew it because "the terrorist threat will not expire on that schedule."

Similarly, the President warned congressional critics of his tax relief that unless they make these cuts permanent, "the unfair tax on marriage will go back up," "millions of families will be charged 300 dollars more in Federal taxes for every child," "small businesses will pay higher taxes," and, most grotesquely, "the death tax will come back to life." The President will yield no ground.

Drawing Lines

Free market health experts were encouraged by the President's clear enunciation of a vision to address the problem of those lacking health insurance through individual choice. "Our goal," he said, "is to ensure that Americans can choose and afford private health care coverage that best fits their individual needs" through the creation of "a refundable tax credit that would allow millions to buy their own basic health insurance."

Their counterparts who advocate allowing workers to steer a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes into personal accounts no doubt rejoiced when the President drew a line in the sand on this issue, saying: "We should make the Social Security system a source of ownership for the American people." Defenders of national health insurance and of maintaining the current, unsustainable Social Security system understand that these words are precise and utterly incompatible with their world view on these foundational issues.

The President chose to draw another battle line with his creative proposal to make Pell Grants available to low-income high school students "who prepare for college with demanding courses in high school." Doctrinaire liberals who oppose all forms of educational choice must shiver at the thought of denying academically aggressive and upwardly mobile students from poor households a federal voucher to apply toward their Advanced Placement classes or courses at the local community college.

The growing number of small government conservatives who have grown frustrated with the President and Congress in the past year may be forgiven if they react skeptically to the President's vow to "limit the burden of government on this economy by acting as good stewards of taxpayer dollars." To this end, he promises to limit the overall growth in discretionary spending to "less than four percent."

This is an ambitious proposal. Any budget that adheres to it and simultaneously "funds the war, protects the homeland, and meets important domestic needs"must of necessity freeze or reduce spending in those domestic policy areas - education, housing, transportation, job training, the environment, law enforcement - that have proven to be the most difficult to prune, especially during an election year.

Good Advice

Of all the policy initiatives set forth in last night's speech, this one may prove most likely to set the President apart from his Republican allies on Capitol Hill. Recognizing this, and perhaps deciding that a mild scolding was in order after the unprecedented explosion of new spending and pork projects in the current fiscal year, the President stipulated that achieving this goal "will require that Congress focus on priorities, cut wasteful spending, and be wise with the people's money."

Good advice. Now let's hope our elected officials in Washington can follow it.

Michael Franc is Vice President for Government Relations at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies