By Richard S. Dunham You have to hand it to George W. Bush: He sticks to his guns, both literally and figuratively. In delivering his second inaugural address to thousands of loyalists, lawmakers, and dignitaries on Jan. 20, the 43rd President didn't reach out to defeated Democrats or alienated international allies.
The President expressed not a whit of regret at any decision he has ever made. Instead, he laid out his fundamentally dichotomous view of the world. Right vs. wrong. Good vs. evil. Us against them. In Bush's worldview, the U.S., through the force of its ideals and its military, is the anointed global defender of freedom and liberty. Whether you agree with him or not, there were no surprises.
"ETERNALLY RIGHT." "Some have unwisely chosen to test America's resolve, and have found it firm," he declared on a sunny, crisp midwinter day. "We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: the moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right."
The President's second inaugural address assiduously avoided a laundry list of policy priorities and instead stuck to a theme that he hopes will follow him into the history books. Much like Woodrow Wilson, another deeply religious wartime President, Bush is waging war to make the world safe for democracy. But unlike Wilson, an internationalist whose belief in a League of Nations led to his political Waterloo, Bush believes that America must lead the world in a war for peace and freedom.
"America's influence is not unlimited," Bush said, "but, fortunately for the oppressed, America's influence is considerable, and we will use it confidently in freedom's cause."
Freedom was the unifying theme of Bush's 21-minute speech. Freedom around the world. Freedom to prosper at home through a new "Ownership Society" featuring private Social Security accounts and lower taxes. But freedom abroad definitely dominated the President's thoughts. "There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant," he declared, "and that is the force of human freedom."
CORE BELIEFS. Bush probably was smart to concentrate on his global challenges. History likely won't care much about the fight over tort reform or Medicaid funding -- or even today's enormous budget deficits. But Bush's new policy of preemptive war and his willingness to use American power to pursue his ideals are sure to be central to the Bush legacy.
Still, freedom isn't free, and Democrats were hungering for an admission from Bush that America would, in the words of John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural address, "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty." Bush is no JFK as an orator, and he seems constitutionally incapable of using the word "sacrifice" in connection with the war on terror.
So be it. Democrats should just accept the fact that Bush isn't going to change his core beliefs in a second term. As Bush readily admits, he doesn't do nuance. He wants America and Americans to have it all.
WILSON OR ROOSEVELT? Events around the world in coming years -- and the judgment of history -- will determine whether Bush is a hopeless dreamer like Woodrow Wilson, who hoped to shape the world in an unrealistic way. Or perhaps Bush will become another Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who took the nation from two of its darkest hours, the Depression and Pearl Harbor, and molded political coalitions at home and military coalitions abroad to save the world from economic collapse and a madman's cruel vision.
Bush certainly faces limits in shaping outcomes from Iraq to Israel to the continuing plotting by al Qaeda. But he can control the way in which he frames his vision. And his second inaugural address, while falling short of a rhetorical blockbuster, offered a clear, uncompromising vision. Dunham is Washington Outlook editor for BusinessWeek