State of the Union: No Sugar-Coating

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"As we gather tonight, our nation is at war, our economy is in recession, and our world faces unprecedented dangers — yet the state of our union has never been stronger."

In a wartime State of the Union Address, bad news is part of the formula, and George W. Bush's opening line was, like every other line of his nearly 60-minute address, drowned in a wave of applause from the crowd in the House of Representatives Tuesday night. And then Bush, always master of his message, got right down to the mission — reminding America and its politicians that nearly five months later, it is still a nation under attack. That the country may have won the first battle but the war — and the threat — is far from over.

Quickly settling into that cadenced, two-step style that's made him a passable and occasionally inspiring formal speaker, Bush rattled off diplomatic and military accomplishments in the war on terror. Then he did the same for the gallery guests — Afghanistan's new leader, its new Minister of Womens' Affairs, and the widow of America's first military hero, Shannon Spann.

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Then came the guests unseen, uninvited — the bad guys that Bush's presidency has been built on fighting. About them, Bush was blunt. He reminded the audience what had been found in the smoked-out holes of Afghanistan — blueprints of U.S. nuclear plants, surveillance maps of major cities, instructions on chemical-weapon manufacture. He pointed to the harboring nations, the future hotspots that the Pentagon already has on simmer — the Phillipines. Bosnia. Somalia. Iran. Iraq. And he pointed to the "tens of thousands of killers, schooled in the methods of murder" are still out there, and still intent on bringing the U.S. to its knees. The terrorists not yet killed, not yet captured, Bush warned, were like "ticking time bombs," and until this campaign was won, "our sense of security will be false and temporary."

George W. Bush, having been lifted up several notches in the presidential pantheon by a soaring performance in his last, unofficial State of the Union Address Sept. 20, didn't hit any new heights Tuesday night — but then again, Bush isn't an underdog anymore. And the mission of this speech wasn't to impress, merely to remind the nation how impressive he's been.

But that wasn't going to excuse him from tending to the fault line that is slowly creeping into Bush's approval ratings — Americans are beginning to turn their attention to the economy, to their retirements, to the newspaper stories about Enron, and beginning to wonder if Bush should do the same. How much was Bush going to try to allay fears on the purely domestic fronts, in an address whose primary purpose was to revivify them, in the name of vigilance, on the national- and homeland-security ones?

On that score Bush may have surprised the pundits one more time. It took him a while to get to the economy, making a long transitional stop on all that he was doing on homeland security — he even slipped up once on the organizing "security" theme and said "economic stimulus" instead. But once he got to money matters, Bush touched all the bases and didn't even skimp on Enron (though the name was never mentioned). New safeguards for 401k and pension plans, stricter accounting standards, tougher disclosure laws, making sure CEOs were "held to the highest standard of conduct."

Laying out a tempting middle road for the Democrats, Bush even made compromising noises about farm policy, the environment, ensuring broader home ownership and helping charities help others — but he also promised with some fire that his budget deficits would be "small and short-term, so long as Congress restrains spending and acts in a fiscally responsible manner." And while Bush declared his economic policy to be sum-up-able in just one seemingly agreeable word — "jobs" — you could tell by the crowd, now divided between steroidal Republicans and teeth-clenching Democrats, that it's going to be a long fight ahead. (None of that, however, explains why Dick Armey was reading a book.)

But Bush never strayed very far from his principal point — that the war isn't over, not even close, that it "may not end on our watch." But the war, as the primary definer of this nation's politics, is also fading — and Bush seemed well aware that his call for an extension of patriotism, vigilance and sacrifice will not excuse him from the other war that is just beginning — the domestic-policy one. The White House will continue to try its best to keep Bush's three fronts — foreign, domestic, and economic — unified under one 80-percent-approval roof for as long as possible.

But there were way too many politicians in the room for that.