The President's Sinking Feeling

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The contrast could hardly have been clearer. Last year, President Bush took the House Chamber podium flush with the triumph of his reelection, and ready to tackle the most popular social program in history. This year, when he mentioned Social Security, it was to lament the fact that Congress had refused to pass his reform program—and the cheering came from Democrats.

For the rest of the hour, Bush offered more restrained versions of familiar themes on the foreign policy front and domestic proposals that were either scaled down and repackaged or cautious and vague. Even his most ambitious and concrete goal—to cut Middle Eastern oil imports 75% by 2025—offered little by way of a strategy for getting there, beyond programs that are already under way. And by setting a deadline that is nearly 20 years in the future, he didn't exactly convey much of a sense of urgency about today's gasoline prices.

The bold visions upon which Bush has always prided himself have yielded to the realities that he now has less of nearly everything he needs: money, options and public confidence. The biggest praise for his speech was for ideas that will require lots of new spending—for instance, on math and science education—which will be hard to reconcile with his other goals of restraining the deficit and extending his tax cuts. Democrats will be poring over the fine print of the budget he puts forward next week, eager to find any opportunity they can to point that out.

That Bush would have to trim his ambitions to meet the constraints of the realities in which he finds himself is not surprising. What is harder to explain is why he didn't draw upon the political strengths that he has demonstrated so often in the past to soothe or even acknowledge the anxieties that many Americans are feeling. Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, who is considering a bid for the 2008 Democratic nomination, told TIME, "The President appeared to me to be checked out." What Bush might have done, Vilsack pointed out, is to express sympathy for what people feel every time they pull into a gas station, and to call upon ExxonMobil to invest more of its $36 billion in record profits into finding new sources of energy. Or, Vilsack said, the President might have taken a line from Dwight Eisenhower's Sputnik-era message, and called upon American schoolchildren to study harder to keep pace with the international competition. Americans, Vilsack says, "are longing to be asked to sacrifice, to do something meaningful."

White House officials had fanned out before the speech to lower expectations of what it might produce, and the morning after, it was clear that wasn't just the usual spin. There was no sign in Washington of the "bounce" that every President hopes to see after a State of the Union, but rather, a sense of relief that it was over. And for Bush, maybe the worst part of it is the fact that he still has two more to go.