The language was idealistic, but the appeal was based at least in part on the cold realization that if the final three years of his Presidency are going to be productive, he will have to get bills through a Congress where Republican control is tenuous and resentment toward him runs deep. As if to underscore that point, Democrats reversed the ritual for most of the address's applause linesRepublicans whooping and the opposition scowling stonilyand rose in a standing ovation when he said reprovingly, "Congress did not act last year on my proposal to save Social Security." The President wagged a finger at the Democrats' side of the House chamber, as if to acknowledge their mischief. Bush's call for bipartisanship, which comes less than two weeks after White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove made it clear that Republicans will use terrorism as a divisive issue in the fall elections, even clanged against some of the lines later in the address. He said he would continue to seek lawmakers' advice on Iraq but added, "There is a difference between responsible criticism that aims for success, and defeatism that refuses to acknowledge anything but failure. Hindsight alone is not wisdom. And second-guessing is not a strategy."
People who saw the President behind the scenes earlier in the day said that he seemed surprisingly relaxed and almost chattydefiant and confident about the controversial domestic eavesdropping program that he defended in the address. As usual, he was more passionate about the foreign-policy part of his agenda than about his domestic initiatives, these people said.
In a tacit acknowledgment of his limited political capital and fiscal flexibility, the President's wish list consisted mostly of modest gestures aimed at major problems. A year after pushing a dramatic proposal to remake and partially privatize Social Security, Bush simply called for a bipartisan commission to examine the future crippling costs of the so-called entitlement programs, which hog half the federal budgetSocial Security, Medicare and Medicaid. "This commission should include members of Congress of both parties, and offer bipartisan answers," he said. "We need to put aside partisan politics, work together, and get this problem solved."
During a road show over the next month, Bush will unpacka week at a timedetails of plans he mentioned last night for restraining spending, keeping America economically competitive, reducing dependence on foreign oil, and making health care more accessible and affordable. The agenda looked a lot like an effort to make last-minute adjustments in areas he has neglected, all for the sake of history. Some of his plans were reminiscent of those of President Bill Clinton, including his proposal to use federal money to help improve math and science education and bolster scientific research.
Pointing to angst but not malaise, the President said that many Americans, especially parents, have "deep concerns about the direction of our culture, and the health of our most basic institutions." The comments reflected the political pickle in which Bush finds himself. A TIME poll, with results similar to other national surveys, found last week that 63 percent of the 1,002 adults interviewed thought the country was on the wrong track, up 3 points from late November. The President's ratings for his handling of the war on terrorism was down 9 points from a year earlier and his approval rating was at 41 percent, compared with the 52 percent he won at the polls in 2004. White House aides recognize that numbers like that cannot be reversed quickly, and endeavored to set modest expectations for the speech's immediate effects. Matthew Dowd, the senior strategist for Bush's reelection campaign and now senior adviser to the Republican National Committee, sent a memo to party leaders this week contending that the idea of a traditional "State of the Union bounce" is a myth. He said that over past 50 years, the average movement in polls after State of the Union addresses was actually a slight drop of 0.2 percent. In case anyone missed the point, he added that, "Context is everything in politics."
The President did not get into any detail about the fever for lobbying reform that has swept the Capitol amid a wide-ranging federal corruption investigation touched off by disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. But said he supports "reforms to strengthen the ethical standards of Washington," and cheekily proposed that Congress finally giving him line-item veto power would solve the problem of earmarksthe pork projects that often find their way into bills at the last minute. Eager to maintain his reputation for optimism, he pointed to "a quiet transformation, a revolution of conscience" in American society that has resulted in lower rates of welfare, violent crime, drug use, abortion, and births to teenage mothers.
The headline-making quote in Bush's speech was, "America is addicted to oil." Democrats and environmentalists mocked the President's assertion of concern and his stated new goal of replacing 75 percent of the nation's Mideast oil imports by 2025 with alternative energy sources. Critics quickly pointed out that he has been saying for years that the nation needs to reduce its dependence on foreign oil, even as the percentage of U.S. oil from foreign sources rose without the administration advocating any dramatic measures to reverse the trend. "It's impossible for someone to simultaneously be the cause and the solution for a problem," said Jeff Nussbaum, a Democratic speechwriter. Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, pointed to the oil and gas industry's heavy contributions to the GOP and asserted that the real problem is "Republican addiction to oil money."
Last night's overture to Democrats was not new: Bush has been branding himself a uniter, not a divider, since he was Texas Governor and running for President in 2000. During his remarks from the podium of the Texas House of Representatives after winning his final court victory over Vice President Al Gore, he said that he believes things happen for a reason, and that he hoped the five-week wait for victory would "heighten a desire to move beyond the bitterness and partisanship of the recent past." Instead, narrow party margins in both chamberscombined with unsparing tactics in the midterms of '02 and the national election of '04have left little room or incentive for cooperation. Still, the afternoon after his reelection, the President told a victory rally at the Ronald Reagan Building: "A new term is a new opportunity to reach out to the whole nation." So the question is: This time, does he actually mean it?