The Economist on the State of the Union


Senior Member
Jan 20, 2006
New Orleans, LA/Cambridge, MA
FOR his past five state-of-the-union addresses, George Bush has been framed by two overweight white men, sitting behind him on the podium. This year Dick Cheney was still there, trying to look cheerful. But Dennis Hastert was replaced by a very different figure—a pencil-thin woman from America's most liberal city. Nancy Pelosi's position in the Speaker's chair was a vivid reminder of how much politics has changed since the mid-term elections—and how rapidly Mr Bush's power is slipping away from him.

Mr Bush faces Democratic majorities in both chambers, a majority of 31 in the House and of one in the Senate. (Joe Lieberman aligns himself with the Democrats there despite being an independent who supports Mr Bush over Iraq.)

But this is only the beginning of his problems. Public support for the war is crumbling. Mr Bush is facing a big showdown with Congress, as Democratic opposition hardens and leading Republicans abandon him: on January 24th, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted against his latest Iraq plan. And his poll numbers are in the tank. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll puts Mr Bush's approval rating at 33% and his disapproval rating at 65%. This does not make him the most unpopular president in post-war history—Richard Nixon and Harry Truman have gone lower. But third from bottom is hardly good news. The most important fact about the state-of-the-union speech, from a political point of view, is a simple one: the union is turning sharply against Mr Bush and his policies.

So, in the first half of Mr Bush's speech he struck a bipartisan tone. “Our citizens don't much care which side of the aisle we sit on, as long as we're willing to cross that aisle when there is work to be done”, he said, and laid out several areas where, he believed, Republicans and Democrats could work together. He proposed a wide-ranging plan to reform health care by making basic private health insurance more affordable (see article). He produced a set of proposals to tackle climate change and America's dependence on foreign oil, including a target of reducing America's petrol consumption by 20% in the next ten years. He also tried to regalvanise his proposal for “comprehensive” immigration reform, embracing a temporary worker programme and a path to citizenship as well as tougher border controls.

Mr Bush's best chance of bipartisanship may lie in immigration reform. The biggest barrier to such a reform in the past has come from congressional Republicans. On Tuesday the Democrats were notably more enthusiastic about Mr Bush's proposals than the Republicans. Dana Rohrabacher, a Californian Republican, even made a point of sitting grumpily in his chair while the entire Democratic side was on its feet applauding. Immigration reform will stir up a hornet's nest on the right, providing doubting conservatives with yet another reason for abandoning the president. But it will also provide Mr Bush with a chance to end his presidency with a big domestic reform, just as he began it with a big reform of education.

Mr Bush's embrace of energy independence and greenery also suggests a growing consensus: this was the first time that Mr Bush has referred to “global climate change” in a state-of-the-union message. (On the same day he said it, his rival in 2000, Al Gore, was being nominated for an Oscar for his film on the subject.) But Mr Bush's earlier forays in this area have fallen flat. He failed to provide his plan to reduce petrol consumption with any teeth. And the Democrats are unlikely to allow Mr Bush to hijack what they regard as one of their signature issues. Mr Bush's proposals to reform health care are also sensible. But the Democrats pronounced the idea dead on arrival, and the president lacks the political capital to override their objections.

The gulf over the Gulf
Mr Bush devoted the second half of his speech to Iraq. His defence of his policy was feisty, in the circumstances. But it was completely devoid of the optimism of previous years. And at its heart lay an admission of profound failure. “This is not the fight we entered,” he said, “but it is the fight we're in.” He said little about the rest of the “axis of evil”, underlining the extent to which Iraq has constrained his foreign policy even as North Korea and Iran move ever closer to having deliverable nuclear weapons. He argued that withdrawing from Iraq would produce a regional conflagration: a striking reversal from his earlier argument that invading Iraq would bring stability to the region and an admission that his “realist” critics had been right before the war. Mr Bush's speech was essentially a desperate plea to be given more time.

But he is unlikely to get the time he is asking for. In the formal Democratic reply to the speech, Jim Webb, a senator from Virginia, savaged the president. He said that Mr Bush “took us into this war recklessly”, and that the United States is now “held hostage to the predictable—and predicted—disarray that followed.” He called for a “formula” that will allow American combat troops to leave Iraq “in short order”. Mr Webb's words have an added resonance because of who he is—a Vietnam war veteran and former Republican who broke with his party over Iraq, and the father of a marine who is currently serving in Iraq. But such opposition is only to be expected from the Democrats. What is really limiting Mr Bush's time is what is going on across the aisle.

The most ominous sign for the White House is that Senator John Warner has co-sponsored a bipartisan proposal that soundly rejects Mr Bush's plan to send more troops to Baghdad, and urged a new course in Iraq. Mr Warner is a foreign policy heavyweight in Republican circles, a former chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a former secretary of the navy; and, unlike Chuck Hagel, co-author of another critical resolution, he has a long record of being supportive of Mr Bush. Mr Warner's proposal has attracted the support of two other Republicans, Maine's Susan Collins and Minnesota's Norm Coleman, and other Republicans have made their unhappiness felt.

The doubts are now pervasive in the party. John Cornyn, a conservative Republican senator from Texas, told CNN that he no longer believed that the president is a credible spokesman on Iraq. Even Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader and a Bush supporter, warned that the Iraqi government had very little time to turn things around.

Republicans have tended to be more loyal than Democrats. But Republicans can read the political runes like everyone else: more than 60% of Americans oppose sending more troops to Iraq, despite the White House's best efforts to turn opinion around. If Republicans are confronted with a choice between giving Mr Bush the time he needs and political survival, they will choose political survival, for all the loud applause they gave Mr Bush on Tuesday night.

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