Been down so long it looks like up to me goes the Blues song. In his 2007 State-of-the-Union address President Bush sang these blues. His January 23rd performance was somber and, ultimately, disoriented.
Bush spent a major part of his speech defending his Iraq escalation. Appealing for support: "Our country is pursuing a new strategy in Iraq, and I ask you to give it a chance to work." Judging from the parade of Republican Senators who, afterward, rushed to tell the media they disagreed with Bush, his message fell on deaf ears. Indeed, the speech pundits talked about was not the State-of-the-Union, but rather Senator Jim Webb's ferocious Democratic response: "The President took us into this war recklessly... We are now, as a nation, held hostage to the predictable and predicted disarray that has followed."
What was noteworthy about this state-of-the-union was Bush's grim, defensive demeanor and the paucity of ideas; an indication the conservative express has run out of steam and intends to coast to the end of Bush's term. What happened to the aggressive Administration that a few years ago trumpeted the rise of American Empire and deluged Congress with conservative legislation? It's been halted by a sober reality: the American people no longer trust George Bush.
The President Bush is not a compelling orator. Nonetheless, his previous state-of-the-union addresses produced memorable moments: in 2001, Bush declared his number one priority was education and for an instant, Americans believed Bush would govern from the center, rather than from the far right. 2002 featured the "axis of evil" phrase, where the President informed the nation the real focus of his "war on terror" was not Al Qaeda but rather "regimes that sponsor terror:" Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. The third and fourth state-of-the-union addresses were robust defenses of the Bush occupation of Iraq; glib assurances progress was being made and Iraqi democracy just around the corner. The last two addresses sought to shift focus away from Iraq: in 2005, President Bush, eager to spend the "capital" he boasted of accumulating from his November reelection, announced his plan to reform social security. And, in his sixth address, Bush took aim at immigration.
In addition to pat phrases-"the state of our union is strong" and "our cause in the world is right"-the President's State-of-the-Union speeches highlight certain enduring themes: Bush always promises legislation regarding jobs, tax relief, healthcare, energy costs, and education. Yet, after his 2001 address, this commitment seemed insincere to all but true believers. And, since 2004, Bush's annual reports lacked the enthusiasm that's characterized his set campaign speeches. That's when his State-of-the-Union address began to take on the form of public ritual, when it devolved into the call-and-response pattern seen in Fundamentalist Christian churches: the President throws out homilies and Congress rises in applause: "The great question of our day is whether America will help men and women in the Middle East to build free societies and share in the rights of all humanity. And I say, for the sake of our own security, we must." This is Dubya as preacher.
While there are several explanations for the devolution of Bush's State-of-the-Union address, the most likely one is that the President's handlers recognize he has spent his political capital and, therefore, will have little impact on legislation passed by the 110th Congress, other than his veto. George Bush has become a lame-duck President. Not because Democrats won control of Congress last November 7th, but rather due to the fact that over the past twelve months Dubya lost the confidence of the American people.
In the latest Atlantic Monthly Washington reporter Carl Cannon ponders presidential truth telling. Notes that in 2000 George Bush defined Al Gore as a serial exaggerator and himself as a paragon of honesty. "Two months before 9/11, in an Opinion Dynamics poll, 69 percent of Americans-21 percent more than had voted for him-responded that they found Bush, who had campaigned on conservative themes, to be 'honest and trustworthy.'" Six years later, less than half of all voters trust Bush. For a variety of reasons, primarily Iraq, the President lost his reputation for veracity. Cannon does a masterful job analyzing Bush's decline: "Even giving him the benefit of the doubt on honesty, why doesn't the nation's first-ever M.B.A. president demonstrate a better command of the facts?" The author observes that Bush favors soft analysis, "blasť optimism." "With regard to Iraq, President Bush and his top advisers have consistently substituted wishful thinking for analysis and hope for strategy."
What most of us understand, although Cannon doesn't say, is that when a politician loses his reputation as a truth teller, he doesn't recover. Bush will stagger through the remainder of his term and have minimal affect on policy, because Americans see him as a failed leader. This accounts for the President's somber tone in his State-of-the-Union address: He's down so low, down looks like up.