State of the Union serves up something for everyone
Perched atop a national stage at the State of the Union joint session of Congress this week, President George Bush delivered a dramatic yet somber message that could be characterized as a tale of two nations. Sounding like a Democrat during the first half of the speech, Bush called for more spending on mentoring for children of prisoners, AIDS medications for Africa, alternative fuel-driven automobile technology and prescription drug health insurance programs for senior citizens. On the turn of a dime, Bush returned to his conservative roots by calling for further tax reductions and continued his justification for an attack Iraq.
Never before, including Franklin Roosevelt's request for a declaration of war in 1941, had a president used silence rather than applause as an effective rhetorical tool. Bush held the Congress, nation and world hanging on his every word as he described past atrocities. He resurrected Sept. 11 by asking the audience to imagine how much more horrific attacks upon the United States might be if the September terrorists had received weapons of mass destruction from Iraq.
Traditionally presidents enjoy an enormous advantage simply by occupying the Oval Office. Each day the media report on how the president and his administration handle current events and plan for the future. The president's supporters say that what you see is what you get with Bush. They contend that he is a man of conviction and does not sway from his beliefs.
However, focus groups across the nation reacted with mixed emotions immediately following the State of the Union message. Democrats, Republicans and independents picked portions of the speech with which they could agree, but also doubted other assertions articulated by the president. Bush targeted various voting blocs by advocating programs that transcended the political spectrum, thus providing something for everyone.
Targeting programs across the political spectrum is not new in State of the Union addresses. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson wanted to muster support for so many new Great Society initiatives that he moved the address from mid-afternoon to evening so that he could be seen by most Americans.
Bill Clinton mastered the art of raising his political approval ratings by expanding the laundry list of programs he mentioned. Ronald Reagan began the practice of placing citizens who represented various voting blocs in the gallery so that he could honor them during his addresses.
With the time, effort and care that goes into drafting a State of the Union address, no president will ever walk away with less support than when he entered the House chamber. Those who oppose a president need to weather the moment and then begin to chip at the edges of the policies they oppose. Clinton actually strengthened his national support after his State of the Union address during his impeachment. Reagan deflected criticism from himself regarding the Iran-Contra scandal following his address.
Bush has delivered two State of the Union addresses. Last year he rallied a united nation and a sympathetic world following the September attacks but squandered much good will with his harsh rhetoric naming Iraq, Iran and North Korea as the "axis of evil." He vowed to catch all of those who were involved with the attacks and to end terrorism. Many contend that Bush's rhetorical excesses led to the current deterioration of relations and defiance of North Korea.
Last year Bush also promised to improve the economy, create more jobs and stand strong with free nations throughout the world. This year his address contained the same messages, but the economy and our relationship with other nations have deteriorated the past twelve months.
His determination to proceed with his agenda has not changed much since last year. While Bush publicly seems consistent, his State of the Union address shows that he is moving toward the political center in preparation for next year's election.
Today Americans are willing to go another mile with Bush as a show of unity, but are uneasy about our unstable economy and poor standing throughout the world. They are like a ten year-old during the Christmas season. They want Santa to really exist, but are at a point where they are unsure. They hope above all hope that the magic of the season really is true. Americans want the support of the world and compelling evidence that the time for war is now.
The Bush administration is embarking on the path to war with Iraq while North Korea rattles its nuclear saber. Bush will make a case that Hussein is playing games with the inspectors, but will not show the urgency of deploying our troops now. In the region, Syria and Iran have more direct links to Bin Laden and his terror regime. They are more likely to pass along weapons than Iraq, but Bush must be Bush and not waiver on his assertions.
The coming year will contain a war, more economic stumbling and a surprise world event. Next year's State of the Union address will contain more promises to address the economy, a further move to the center of the political spectrum and a self congratulatory pat on the back for a successful war effort. After all, Bush is Bush.
Gary Caruso, Notre Dame class of 1973, served in President Clinton's administration as a Congressional and public affairs director. His column appears every other Friday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Friday, January 31, 2003