This Time, Bush Fell Short

Compared to his soaring Sept. 20 speech, the State of the Union address was workmanlike -- and raised more questions than it answered

By Richard S. Dunham

One of the common denominators I have found is that expectations rise above that which is expected.

-- George W. Bush, campaigning for President in Los Angeles, 9/27/00

For the first time in his political career, President Bush is finding out just how true those words can be. A politician who has consistently exceeded the low expectations of pundits and the public alike, George W. Bush delivered a State of the Union speech on Jan. 29 that was workmanlike and, at times, inspiring. But it fell far short of the patriotic poetry of his stirring Sept. 20 address to the nation from the same podium in the House of Representatives. You could say he finally fell victim to high expectations.

The sense of mission and national emergency that gripped Congress back in the terror-chilled air of September was missing on a balmy January evening -- as was the sense of national unity. Republicans and Democrats were back to their partisan games of one-upmanship on the House floor, exchanging chants and guffaws like spoiled school children. This intrusion of business-as-usual detracted both from the gravitas of the occasion and the President's attempts to inspire Americans to a higher calling.


  Not that Bush didn't have some significant things to say. He described North Korea, Iran, and Iraq as "terrorist allies" and talked about "an axis of evil" that poses "a grave and growing danger." Promising further unspecified military action against terrorism, Bush offered the Pentagon a blank check: "Whatever it costs to defend our country, we will pay it." The President's international leadership was symbolized by the presence of Afghan leader Hamid Karzai in the House gallery, seated next to First Lady Laura Bush.

The President's domestic agenda amounted largely to a laundry list of programs with no central theme, however. Atop the list was reviving the economy through a combination of a new round of tax cuts, acceleration of previously approved tax cuts, trade liberalization, and extended health-care and unemployment benefits for out-of-work Americans.

Bush briefly mentioned other generally popular topics, such as a prescription-drug benefit for seniors, a patients' bill of rights, and corporate responsibility, but he avoided any mention of the hotly debated solutions to these problems.


  The speech had several notable omissions. Bush didn't say anything about campaign-finance reform, which appears to be near passage in the House in the wake of the Enron scandal. Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) labeled the omission the "one glaring deficiency" in an otherwise "broad statement of American principles."

The President didn't mention Enron by name, though several unemployed Enron workers were in the galleries as guests of various lawmakers. Bush also steered clear of the social issues that divide the Republican Party, including abortion, stem-cell research, cloning, and religion in public schools.

On the business front, Bush avoided any reference to regulatory relief and legal reform, two top priorities of corporate lobbyists. Just a week ago, stock prices for companies whose bottom line was damaged by asbestos litigation had spiked up on the false rumor that the President would mention a cap on asbestos lawsuit recoveries in the State of the Union. Not only did Bush fail to mention asbestos companies but he didn't even talk about tort reform.


  Bush's recitation of domestic priorities raised many more questions than it answered. The biggest: How will the President pay for the host of new programs he has proposed -- from a new USA Freedom Corps of volunteers to additional drug coverage for the elderly -- while simultaneously cutting taxes and raising defense spending? Without a great deal of fiscal discipline on Capitol Hill, the federal deficit could quickly balloon to the bad old days of the early 90s.

But State of the Union speeches really aren't about substance. And on the whole, the President did a fine job with tone and style. He had a few memorable lines. "The forces of terror cannot stop the momentum of freedom," was one. And Bush elegantly noted the societal shifts brought on by the events of September 11: "For too long, our culture has said: 'If it feels good, do it.' Now America is embracing a new ethic and a new creed: 'Let's roll.'" That's a nod to the airline passengers who sacrificed their lives over Pennsylvania in an attempt to thwart a second terrorist attack on Washington.

A year ago, the pundits would have proclaimed that Bush's latest address to the nation had been a pretty good speech that exceeded expectations. Now, it can be said that it was merely pretty good. The question now: Will Americans expect anything less from him?

Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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