President Bush’s State of the Union address Tuesday evening was workmanlike and one of the better spoken of his time in office. There was nothing sharply new, such as last year’s call for a complete overhaul of Social Security. It mainly moved his agenda toward the November election.
It was encouraging to hear the president call for making permanent his tax cuts. “If we do nothing, American families will face a massive tax increase they do not expect and will not welcome,” he warned.
And his best new proposal was to “strengthen health savings accounts, making sure individuals and small-business employees can buy insurance with the same advantages that people working for big businesses now get.”
The president also pushed for open markets and spoke against protectionism, for America not to become isolationist and for restoring a president’s line-item veto of pork spending.
He spoke of what seemed to be two large new programs — to increase federal spending for 1) energy research and 2) education and technology research — without offering a solid estimate of what they would cost. Some of the items in the Advanced Energy Initiative and the American Competitiveness Initiative sounded a bit like a platform on which Republican members of Congress might campaign this fall.
The strangest moment of the speech might have been when Bush lamented that “Congress did not act last year on my proposal to save Social Security” — and Democratic members of Congress stood and cheered. It’s true the president’s 2005 reform strategy was not well conducted. But as the president pointed out Tuesday night, this is a problem that is not going away, but is getting worse, with the first baby boomers turning 60 this year.
On foreign policy, the president was right to call on Hamas, which last week won the elections in the Palestinian territories, to “recognize Israel, disarm, reject terrorism and work for lasting peace.”
He continued his ongoing themes of advancing freedom and democracy in the world. He seemed to be responding to critics who have pointed out that recent democratic elections have brought to the fore some forces that have been against freedom, such as Hamas, when he said, “Raising up a democracy requires the rule of law, and protection of minorities, and strong, accountable institutions that last longer than a single vote.”
Of course, as we have often pointed out, democracy-building is a lot easier said than done. As America’s experience in Iraq shows, even when backed by the force of American arms, the establishment of democracy and the rule of law is no easy task.
On Iraq, the president gave some indication that a good number of American troops finally could be withdrawn this year. “As we make progress on the ground and Iraqi forces increasingly take the lead, we should be able to further decrease our troop levels,” he said.
Not surprisingly, but still unfortunately, the president backed reauthorizing the Patriot Act, which we have objected to because of its threat to American liberties. And he again contended that his unilateral, secret decision-making in the surveillance of Americans without a court order should continue.
As justification, he said that “we will not sit back and wait to be hit again” by terrorists. But neither should Americans sit back and see their ancient freedoms eroded.
All in all, the speech was a forceful — some might say stubborn — repetition of familiar foreign policy themes and a grab bag of new domestic initiatives that will only grow the government.