Bush's SOTU: Nixon Would Have Been Proud

With 500 members of Congress packed into the peanut gallery, the attention of the nation's political and media establishments and millions of Americans hanging on his every word, the president of the United States gave his State of the Union address last night.

He does it every year -- it's in the Constitution!

Earlier yesterday, when asked by reporters what the best part of the speech was going to be, White House Spokesman Tony Snow replied, "You know, it's difficult to say. It's like looking in a drawer full of diamonds."

But those who were expecting some glittering bling-bling would have been disappointed; what made last night's SOTU noteworthy is that George W. Bush simply had nothing to say. It might have been the first time in American history.

Of course, everyone will pretend he said something important -- that it was a major address. The media will pick it apart and discuss its "significance"; lawmakers from both parties will quote bits and pieces of it to support or oppose this or that legislation; bloggers will remind us of what he said when he actually does the opposite and so on. But all you really need to know is that last night president George W. Bush could have come out on stage and, after pausing to let the ovation die down, he might have looked at the cameras with those beady little eyes and said, simply, "Folks, I got nothing. G'night!"

Yes, he went through the motions. After slowly making his way to the podium, straining to bear the weight of a 28 percent approval rating -- the lowest any president has had on the day of the Big Speech since Nixon's 1974 SOTU -- he engaged in a mini love-fest with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, saying, "I have a high privilege and distinct honor of my own -- as the first president to begin the State of the Union message with these words: Madam Speaker." It was, admittedly, a nice moment, even coming as it does 19 years after Pakistan had its first female prime minister.

He then gave a surprisingly smooth version of the usual boilerplate, laced heavily with tried-and-true focus-tested language. But consider what he really offered the American people last night, during what most folks consider to be a time of real crisis in this country.

The first 30 minutes focused on domestic issues. He said the "economy is on the move" and touted 41 months of job growth, even as new data released last week shows that income inequality is rising to "unprecedented" levels.

He called for a balanced budget -- the Fox camera caught new Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel laughing out loud -- and for earmark reform a week after the Dems passed a bill doing just that. He talked about "entitlement reform," saying that Social Security needed to be "saved" -- a narrative that economist Dean Baker calls Bush's "Social Security WMD story."

He told a nation with over 40 million people who lack health insurance that -- aside from poor children and the elderly -- "private health insurance is the best way to meet their needs." The centerpiece of his speech, if there was one, was a proposal for a standardized tax deduction of $7,500 for singles and $15,000 for families that would allow them to purchase a "basic private healthcare policy" -- code for the cheap, high-deductible plans that accompany those health savings accounts he's proposed in the past. It sounds good, but it's a nonstarter -- the tax credits would discourage younger, healthier people from buying decent coverage -- taking them out of the risk pool and increasing rates for everyone else -- and provide a disincentive for preventive care. American Prospect writer Ezra Klein called it "almost laughably wrongheaded," and said it "won't survive an instant in Congress. Pete Stark, chair of the House Health Subcommittee, has already dismissed the idea of hearings." It was, like the rest, much ado about nothing.

On immigration, the president again said he'd double border patrols and called for a civil debate leading to "comprehensive reform." It was the only time he got more applause from the Democratic side of the aisle than from the Republicans. I should note that despite a near-rebellion among his base over the issue, Bush has yet to offer a concrete proposal on immigration, instead mumbling positive words about various measures put forth in the Senate last year. More nothing.

On energy, he said that technology would ultimately wean us from our addiction to oil just one day after a high-powered group of business leaders, called the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, declared that inventing new technology isn't enough.

His proposal to increase mileage standards and reduce gas consumption by 20 percent over the next ten years -- the Fox News commentators said, "one might wonder if such a thing is even possible" -- is certainly a good idea. But this is an administration that is joined at the hip with Big Oil. Bush has opposed raising fuel efficiency standards for his entire political career, most recently last February; does anyone believe that such a proposal won't go the way of his War on Steroids in Baseball or his plan to land a man on Mars -- those ghosts of SOTUs past?

It was clear that he wanted to focus on domestic issues; just weeks after proposing an escalation of troops in Iraq that two-thirds of Americans oppose, he all but shouted, "for the love of God, can we please change the subject!" By my rough reckoning, he spent about eight minutes on the "War on Terror" and another six on Iraq, dodging between the two in his usual way.

He said, "We did not drive al Qaeda out of their safe haven in Afghanistan only to let them set up a new safe haven in a free Iraq." While the Taliban are busy building schools in Afghanistan, he was right about al Qaeda; we drove them out of Afghanistan so they could set up a new safe haven in Pakistan.

The highlight of the evening's discourse was when Bush said, "Free people are not drawn to violent and malignant ideologies." And there was Dick Cheney, smirking over the president's shoulder and disproving the claim even as he uttered it.

We face the twin demons of Sunni and Shiite extremists, said the president, who will come from "all directions" and take over the whole of Iraq if we withdraw. He blamed Iran for supporting those Shiite extremists -- a somewhat questionable charge -- and al Qaeda for aiding their Sunni counterparts; as we've come to expect in Bush's speeches, there was no mention of his Saudi friends who are reportedly financing the very insurgents responsible for the majority of U.S. deaths.

Of his escalation plan, he said: "Our military commanders and I have carefully weighed the options. We discussed every possible approach. In the end, I chose this course of action because it provides the best chance of success." Left unsaid was that he had fired those generals who disagreed. His plan garnered only scattered applause from the Republicans, while the Dems sat on their hands.

Among the noteworthy aspects of the speech was what was left out. As the AP noted, "Hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, La., still is a mess, and the pace of recovery across the Gulf Coast from Hurricane Katrina's strike remains achingly slow after 17 months. But none of this captured President George W. Bush's attention on the year's biggest night for showcasing policy priorities."

To be fair to the president, it didn't really matter what he said; Americans are fully aware of the state of our union. Polls this week paint a grim picture of a nation that has lost confidence in its leaders. Seven out of ten Americans say the country is headed on the wrong track. A record 64 percent call the Iraq war a mistake, more than at any time during Vietnam, and "for the first time more than half of Americans, 52 percent, say the United States should withdraw its forces to avoid further U.S. casualties, even if civil order hasn't been restored." More than half think the economy's getting worse, and less than a third of the country thinks Bush "shares their priorities." He might as well have gone up there and admitted that he had nothing.

Ultimately, the best thing about this State of the Union was the end -- Miller Time -- and with it, the knowledge that we'll only have to suffer through one more.

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