State of the Union: Big Themes, Small Details

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ELEMENTAL: Bush delivered a pure expression of his presidency

It's a cliche, of course, but the State of the Union address is notorious for being a committee-written document, a tedious laundry list interspersed with fulsome praise for the American spirit and God. But if the speech had some of that feel, it was also pure Bush, as clear an expression of the man he's become and the presidency he guides as anything I've heard in four years. His father tried to shirk the caricature that all he cared about was foreign policy. The son, who came to office, probably figuring he'd fix schools, cut taxes, and get the hell out of Bosnia has found his passion in world affairs, arguably more so than his U.N. Ambassador dad. All the energy was in the back half of the speech—the foreign policy section—and not just because of the electric moment of a fallen soldier's mother hugging a first-time Iraqi voter.

In last year's SOTU, one of the few to ever see a president fall in the polls, Bush started with foreign policy and then phoned in the domestic. Same with this year's inaugural. Last night, Bush's team figured they would start with the domestic in an effort to remind viewers that he really does care about Michigan as much as Mosul.

The gambit didn't work because it's not what drives him anymore. Lines like "The road of Providence is uneven and unpredictable—yet we know where it leads: It leads to Freedom." were a tad more soaring that his riffs about asbestos litigation or the Thrift Savings Plan available to federal workers which, by the way, is an add on to Social Security for workers like GS-11s, not a replacement.

Of course, Sunday's touching election—everyone in politics and the press is required to pause and praise the Selmaesque bravery of Iraqis going to the polls—helped lift Bush's rhetoric. Imagine if Sunday had been raw carnage and Bush's new head speechwriter, Bill McGurn from The Wall Street Journal, was left trying to do a Gettysburg-style elegy, making sense from the blood spilled and rallying Americans to go on? But it wasn't just the post-election glee that animated Bush. It's who he is now. The push for freedom was compelling, riveting. And when Bush took gentle but wildly unexpected dings at the Saudi and Egyptian governments it was brilliant, undermining the Democrats' claims that he had double standards for allies. You suddenly had the sense that freedom would be integrated into American foreign policy in a revolutionary way.

The speech was also classic Bush in its raw chutzpah. The man who could oppose a Homeland Security Department and then crush the Democrats in 2002 for their support of a more Union-friendly version of the same department knows his flips from his flops. The tender concern for prisoners on death row? Bush approved 152 executions in Texas and as The Atlantic pointed out so vividly, 57 of them were based on shabby "execution summary" memos written by his counsel, Alberto Gonzales. As Alan Berlow, who wrote the piece, noted, in the case of Terry Washington, "a brain-damaged and retarded man, Gonzales never informed Bush that Washington's incompetent attorney never called a mental health expert to testify, never advised the jury that his client was retarded or that he had an IQ between 58 and 69 and had been beaten with whips, water hoses, extensions cords, fan belts and wire hangers as a child." I couldn't help but think back to Bush's interview with Tucker Carlson in the now defunct Talk magazine, where the Texas governor mockingly mimicked the death row appeals of born-again convict Karla Faye Tucker. "Please don't kill me," said Bush with a condescending quiver. And the riff on gang violence? It's fine to take on gangs, but I couldn't help but notice Bush's promotion of programs "ranging from literacy to sports" and the standing ovation it drew from House Republicans who spent the Clinton 90s laughing at their anti-gang initiative, Midnight Basketball.

Social Security was, of course, the big sale of the night and it was about as unexpected as the car dealer who asks if you're ready to talk about financing. Still, for all the hype, it's hard to see how Bush made much progress—with Democrats who seem more united than at any time since 2001, with his own nervous Nellies and with the audience at home. First, it's a tough sell, because while voters intuitively believe the program is in trouble—despite the lame protestations of Democrats that its fiscal outlook is utterly sunny—they're simply not trusting of Republicans who seem too eager to overhaul a 70-year-old program that dispenses checks to a sixth of the population. If this were a Clinton proposal, he might have the Nixon-goes-to-China credentials to do it. But Bush offering to fix Social Security is more like McGovern-to-Havana.

Bush's attempt to hide behind Democrats who have warned about Social Security's solvency—Tim Penny, Bill Clinton, Pat Moynihan—didn't really help much. Perhaps he made a mistake by not selling the pain part of his plan more candidly. Despite the admonition of editorial boards, pols are right to avoid asking for pain from audiences. It almost never works. But in this case it might have. By offering up the dessert of giving everyone a mutual fund holder, he tacitly undermined his own efforts to make the case that there's a crisis. How can you deploy mushroom-cloud words like "collapse" and then offer free candy? Besides, at some point Bush will have to start talking about the benefit cuts and big-time borrowing that are an inevitable result of diverting revenue from the system. Why not do it now? At a background briefing for reporters earlier in the day, a "senior administration official" insisted that it was too early to talk about such thorny matters.

So what else was missing in the speech? He paid homage to Democrats but didn't use the word Republican. He defended marriage without having to use the word gay and seem mean spirited. He stood up for "life", without having to use the word abortion. And he invoked a vision of a creepy Blade Runner world of selling human parts and bodies without mentioning stem cell research, which remains popular. And, of course, no mention of Osama bin Laden. Bush remains not only passionate but very smart.