The stage was set for the State of the Union speech by a president who had one of the lowest ratings in modern history. You have to back up to Richard Nixon's 1974 speech during the Watergate scandal to find an equivalent. As a result, George W. Bush's speech was just as unconvincing as Nixon's.
Bush waited until the last moment of his speech to assert that "the state of the union is strong," a statement meant to come after the "balcony politics" of referring to various people in the balcony that have done heroic things.
It would have been better had he exhibited the honesty of Lyndon Banes Johnson, who said in his 1968 State of the Union speech that "the state of the union is challenged both at home and abroad."
The question of whether this speech moved the American people will not be known for some time. However, neither the mainstream media, nor initial polls have indicated that Bush had a "bump" from his most recent address.
Let's review some of the highlights to put Bush's speech into perspective.
The strategy behind the first half of his speech seemed to contest Democrats and win over the public by offering them popular issues. But he failed miserably with his convoluted health insurance plan. It would make employer-paid plans count as earned income for tax purposes, while allowing a $7,000 tax deduction for individuals and $15,000 for families. For Congress, this is dead on arrival. Congress has continuously rejected measures that endanger employer-subsidized health insurance.
Bush then promised — as he has done in the past — to increase funding for No Child Left Behind. These numbers — set in the context of the Iraq war money pit — just don't add up.
The president plowed on, attempting to win some points by addressing global warming. This has been viewed as a modest measure in light of the urgency felt in a country that experienced the warmest year on record since 1938 and is responsible for a substantial share of the carbon emissions that create greenhouse gasses.
All of this set the stage for Bush's attempt to defend his approach for the war in Iraq. None of his symbolic nods to bipartisanship and understanding of the people's message in the recent elections kept him from a spasmodic dance of defending the indefensible war and of promoting a buildup of 21,000 more troops over the objections of his most knowledgeable advisers — that 9/11 was linked to Iraq, and asserted that if America doesn't fight in Iraq, we will have to fight terrorism in America. The fact that America has and will have to deal with terrorism is not a function of the situation in Iraq, it is a result of the historical consequences of one-sided, oil-centric foreign policy in the Middle East that has made us complicit in the evils of the elite leadership in that region.
Any mention of Katrina and the extension of benefits beyond those recently mentioned by FEMA was missing from his speech; no mention of the deteriorating economic status of American workers as Wall Street does well; no mention of signing Democrat-passed bills; no pledge not to cut Pell Grants; no mention of providing more money for childcare to stressed mothers in the welfare program; no mention of anything that would have added real substance to a domestic program. Democrats haven't done this either, but then, they were not in the dock.
This was a well delivered, but forgettable speech, a feeble justification for failure, presented by a president trapped in the vortex of his own untruths.
Ron Walters is the Distinguished Leadership Scholar, Director of the African American Leadership Institute and Professor of Government and Politics.