(Disclaimer: when I say "watch the speech" that means watching while making my son dinner, convincing him that "no, we're not going to watch Higglytown Heros tonight," and trying to explain what a "President" is.)
Let's start with Bush's SOTU speech. Credit where credit is due: I felt his acknowledgement of Nancy Pelosi, the first female Speaker of the House, was genuine and appropriate. Kudos to Bush for having the class to make such an appropriate gesture. On the other hand, I was really surprised with how long he went. I remember back in the 90's, Clinton would give these massive, long-winded SOTU speeches - but that was when there was a laundry list of initiatives that were helping to improve our nation, and Clinton would work through all those positives. But, that's not the case with Bush... he had very little positive to talk about. So I was expecting a relatively short speech, centered on domestic issues, and get him out of there. That wasn't the case. Also, on more general observations, it has now been six years of soaring rhetoric - with little actual results, save a botched occupation of Iraq - yet this Administration still insists on such speeches. At what point has the American people had enough of broad words, and narrow actions? That point probably came last fall - but Bush and his speech writers haven't figured it out yet.
In addition to the length, there are four other more specific observations I had about Bush's speech:
1. Aesthetics - Bush seems old, depressed, and beaten down - I had this same observation about his "big" Iraq speech a couple of weeks ago. He looks like the weight of what he has done to the country is finally starting to sink into him. I have yet to get a feeling about whether this is good or bad overall. But he no longer exudes optimism, confidence, the image of "the Decider," which he so inaptly nick-named himself. It is a striking difference from the "bring 'em on" Bush.
2. Insurance - For the six years of the Bush Presidency, health care has remained a daunting yet fundamental political issue. Nothing has been done. Tuesday, Bush proposed an interesting, yet complicated, plan to expand healthcare coverage. The plan - in very basic form - is this: company provided insurance tax benefits become taxable, but people with insurance are given a "standard" tax deduction on their first $15,000 of income ($7,500 for individuals).
First, I propose a standard tax deduction for health insurance that will be like the standard tax deduction for dependents. Families with health insurance will pay no income or payroll taxes on $15,000 of their income. Single Americans with health insurance will pay no income or payroll taxes on $7,500 of their income. With this reform, more than 100 million men, women, and children who are now covered by employer-provided insurance will benefit from lower tax bills. At the same time, this reform will level the playing field for those who do not get health insurance through their job. For Americans who now purchase health insurance on their own, my proposal would mean a substantial tax savings — $4,500 for a family of four making $60,000 a year. And for the millions of other Americans who have no health insurance at all, this deduction would help put a basic private health insurance plan within their reach. Changing the tax code is a vital and necessary step to making healthcare affordable for more Americans.
The plan is still somewhat sketchy to me - and Bush did not mention the increase in taxable wages in the speech - but it sounds like a start. The big, immediate problem with such a plan, is that it actually increases taxes on families that currently have better health care plans, and would seem to encourage people to choose the cheapest possible insurance plans. I want to read/hear more about Bush's Insurance plan, but on it's face, it doesn't not seem to fully address the two most fundamental challenges of our current health care situation: get every child under 18 health insurance, and provide every employed adult with access to affordable health care. To many, any serious health care initiative must address these two issues.
3. Energy - For the sixth straight SOTU address, Bush discussed our nations energy problems, our reliance on imported oil, and our needs for comprehensive changes in energy policy. And for six years, Bush and the Republicans have done nothing save give tax breaks to Big Oil. Once again, Bush spoke in nicely written words - but no policy to back them up.
Extending hope and opportunity depends on a stable supply of energy that keeps America's economy running and America's environment clean. For too long, our nation has been dependent on foreign oil. ... It is in our vital interest to diversify America's energy supply, and the way forward is through technology. We must continue changing the way America generates electric power by even greater use of clean coal technology ... solar and wind energy ... and clean, safe nuclear power. We need to press on with battery research for plug-in and hybrid vehicles, and expand the use of clean diesel vehicles and biodiesel fuel. We must continue investing in new methods of producing ethanol — using everything from wood chips, to grasses to agricultural wastes. ... Tonight, I ask Congress to join me in pursuing a great goal .... reduce gasoline usage in the United States by 20 percent in the next 10 years — thereby cutting our total imports by the equivalent of three-quarters of all the oil we now import from the Middle East. ... America is on the verge of technological breakthroughs that will enable us to live our lives less dependent on oil. These technologies will help us become better stewards of the environment — and they will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change.Almost the entire energy portion of the speech sounded great - but the past six years of inaction beg significant questions about whether this Administration is serious.
4. Economy/Spending/Earmarks - What I want to say about this is simple: Bush and the Republican Congress have spend the past six years destroying our budget, ballooning deficits, and cramming earmarks into bills. They have transformed a health surplus into an unfathomable deficit in record time. Now, Bush and the Republicans are basically saying to the Democrats: hee, hee, hee - see if you can clean up our mess, and when you can't - we'll blame you!!!
A future of hope and opportunity begins with a growing economy, and that is what we have. We are now in the 41st month of uninterrupted job growth — in a recovery that has created 7.2 million new jobs ... so far. Unemployment is low, inflation is low and wages are rising. ... First, we must balance the federal budget. We can do so without raising taxes. What we need to do is impose spending discipline in Washington, D.C. ... In the coming weeks, I will submit a budget that eliminates the federal deficit within the next five years. ... Next, there is the matter of earmarks. These special interest items are often slipped into bills at the last hour — when not even C-SPAN is watching. In 2005 alone, the number of earmarks grew to over 13,000 and totaled nearly $18 billion. Even worse, over 90 percent of earmarks never make it to the floor of the House and Senate; they are dropped into committee reports that are not even part of the bill that arrives on my desk. You did not vote them into law. I did not sign them into law. Yet they are treated as if they have the force of law. The time has come to end this practice. So let us work together to reform the budget process ... expose every earmark to the light of day and to a vote in Congress … and cut the number and cost of earmarks at least in half by the end of this session.Couple of points - Bush says he has created 7.2MM jobs. But that is not a net number, that is a recovery number. In the six years of the Bush administration, a total of just over 3MM jobs have been created -about 4MM were lost in his first four years and have been recovered. By contrast, in his sixth year as President, Clinton had created over 18MM new jobs. 3MM is nothing to crow about.
Secondly - there is no responsibility. By now, I shouldn't expect it...but there is no acknowledgement that Bush himself, and the budget-busting Republican congress caused the current spending problems. Now, they are laying that responsibility on someone else to fix. (Sounds like Iraq...speaking of...)
5. Foreign policy - I thought one of the most interesting/startling thing about his speech (which I've seen little coverage of) is his continuing threats toward Iran and Syria. (" ") I thought they were as pronounced, if not more, than his Iraq speech two weeks ago. It is baffling why he keeps rattling sabers at these countries while we are bogged down in Iraq. The Bush Doctrine of foreign policy is an unmitigated disaster - yet the neo-cons in the administration refuse to change course. I think that the "surge" is clearly a terrible policy - but it is simply a symptom of the more broad neo-con, Bush Doctrine foreign policy - imperial, interventionist, and aggressive. No diplomacy. Speak brashly, and carry a light, lean stick. It has proven not to work, yet they keep insisting on it.
Al Qaeda and its followers are Sunni extremists, possessed by hatred and commanded by a harsh and narrow ideology. ... The Shia and Sunni extremists are different faces of the same totalitarian threat. But whatever slogans they chant, when they slaughter the innocent, they have the same wicked purposes. They want to kill Americans ... kill democracy in the Middle East ... and gain the weapons to kill on an even more horrific scale. ... It is a decisive ideological struggle, and the security of our nation is in the balance. ... And Hezbollah terrorists, with support from Syria and Iran, sowed conflict in the region and are seeking to undermine Lebanon's legitimately elected government. In Afghanistan, Taliban and al Qaeda fighters tried to regain power by regrouping and engaging Afghan and NATO forces. In Iraq, al Qaeda and other Sunni extremists blew up one of the most sacred places in Shia Islam — the Golden Mosque of Samarra. This atrocity, directed at a Muslim house of prayer, was designed to provoke retaliation from Iraqi Shia — and it succeeded. Radical Shia elements, some of whom receive support from Iran, formed death squads. The result was a tragic escalation of sectarian rage and reprisal that continues to this day. This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we are in.
Bush's equating Al Qaeda with these other groups, and Iran and Syria, seems uncalculated - what part of the Muslim world is he not offending with such language? Who wouldn't read this as a confirmation of a modern Crusade? It is more well-crafted, yet un-reasoned, rhetoric. Just like most of the rest of the speech.
Bush's speech of a whole lot of nothing was dramatically by the Democratic Response delivered by Senator Jim Webb.
I think that the two things in Webb's speech that stood out to me were:
1. Results - The array of accomplishments already achieved by the new Democratic Congress (standing in start contrast to the inaction/bungling of the past six years):
In the early days of our republic, President Andrew Jackson established an important principle of American-style democracy - that we should measure the health of our society not at its apex, but at its base. Not with the numbers that come out of Wall Street, but with the living conditions that exist on Main Street. We must recapture that spirit today.
And under the leadership of the new Democratic Congress, we are on our way to doing so. The House just passed a minimum wage increase, the first in ten years, and the Senate will soon follow. We've introduced a broad legislative package designed to regain the trust of the American people. We've established a tone of cooperation and consensus that extends beyond party lines. We're working to get the right things done, for the right people and for the right reasons.
It looks as if things are actually getting done/going to get done. Exciting. Unfortunately, yesterday Republicans in the Senate filibustered the minimum wage law. Business as usual for them.
2. Leadership - Webb provided the image of the New Direction provided by the Democratic party - leadership in action.
The President took us into this war recklessly. He disregarded warnings from the national security adviser during the first Gulf War, the chief of staff of the army, two former commanding generals of the Central Command, whose jurisdiction includes Iraq, the director of operations on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and many, many others with great integrity and long experience in national security affairs. We are now, as a nation, held hostage to the predictable - and predicted - disarray that has followed. ...
The war's costs to our nation have been staggering. Financially. The damage to our reputation around the world. The lost opportunities to defeat the forces of international terrorism. And especially the precious blood of our citizens who have stepped forward to serve. ...
I am reminded of the situation President Theodore Roosevelt faced in the early days of the 20th century. America was then, as now, drifting apart along class lines. The so-called robber barons were unapologetically raking in a huge percentage of the national wealth. The dispossessed workers at the bottom were threatening revolt.
Roosevelt spoke strongly against these divisions.
He told his fellow Republicans that they must set themselves "as resolutely against improper corporate influence on the one hand as against demagogy and mob rule on the other." And he did something about it. As I look at Iraq, I recall the words of former general and soon-to-be President Dwight Eisenhower during the dark days of the Korean War, which had fallen into a bloody stalemate. "When comes the end?" asked the General who had commanded our forces in Europe during World War Two. And as soon as he became President, he brought the Korean War to an end.
These Presidents took the right kind of action, for the benefit of the American people and for the health of our relations around the world. Tonight we are calling on this President to take similar action, in both areas. If he does, we will join him. If he does not, we will be showing him the way.
If he does, we will join him - if he does not, we will be showing him the way. That is leadership.
The speeches on Tuesday were a reminder of basic American politics - the Republicans are good at winning elections, and disasters at governing. For the first time in years and years, the Democratic party are presenting a viable and formidable alternative.
It's about time.