Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Bush State of Disunion

[[S P E E C H E S]] * U.S. President George Washington’s first State of the Union address was presented to a full Congress in the provisional capital of New York City on January 8, 1790, and thereafter distributed widely by the press. (The image at right shows that address as it appeared in the Massachusetts Spy of January 21, 1790.) Eleven years later, Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third chief executive, dispensed with the practice of delivering this annual speech in person (he thought it too kingly), and instead dispatched his message in writing to Congress, to be read by a clerk. That unspectacular custom persisted until the election of Woodrow Wilson, a much-hailed speaker, who in 1913 brought back the tradition of presidents reading their State of the Union speeches themselves. (“I think this is the only dignified way for the President to address the houses on the opening of a session ...,” Wilson told reporters.) With a number of exceptions, presidents ever since have continued that yearly ritual. (Jimmy Carter, in 1981, was the last Oval Office holder to send a written SOTU address to Capitol Hill.)

When George W. Bush stands up before the TV cameras and Congress tonight to give his fifth State of the Union address, he’ll do so under conditions much changed since he delivered previous such speeches. Despite what his politically conservative and religiously fundamentalist supporters might view as his successes over the last few years--winning new tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans, breaking down the historic separation between church and state, removing Saddam Hussein from authority in Iraq, adding a public-appeasing (but troubled) prescription drug benefit to Medicare, and, with the swearing-in today of Samuel A. Alito Jr., tipping the U.S. Supreme Court even further to the right--52 percent of Americans think Bush’s presidency has been a failure, according to a recent Gallup poll. (That’s up 10 points from the 41 percent who said the same thing in a Pew Research Center survey conducted just last October.) The Republican Party is beset by scandals emanating both from the White House (the CIA leak scandal, the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, charges that Bush lied about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, the domestic spying scandal, as well as others) and from Capitol Hill (the criminal indictment of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay [R-Texas] for conspiracy and money laundering, the investigation of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist for insider stock trading, and the influence-buying scandal surrounding GOP “super-lobbyist” Jack Abramoff). And Dubya will be giving this address in the wake of accusations that he’s tried to enhance executive power at the expense of congressional oversight, in the shadow of Congress’ hesitancy to reauthorize the USA PATRIOT Act, and at a time when there seems to be no end in sight for the Iraq war.

As Knight Ridder Newspapers observes, “Bush heads to Capitol Hill today with lower job-approval ratings, and less political clout, than he’s had in his five previous addresses--and less than most of his predecessors. He’s weaker than any sixth-year president since Richard Nixon in 1974.”

In Salon’s invaluable War Room blog, Tim Grieve maps out the daunting terrain confronting Bush as he begins reading from the teleprompter tonight:
A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows that Americans have two “clear demands” for Bush now: Do something to bring down the cost of health care, and get U.S. troops out of Iraq. Bush will focus much more on the first than the second in his State of the Union address tonight. But as the Journal notes today, he’s not all that likely to be able to deliver on either. On the question of troop withdrawal, Bush has already made it clear that he won’t be moving as quickly as the American people would like. On health care, Bush will talk a good game tonight, but it’s not at all clear that he’ll ever have anything to show for it. Bush spent much of his last State of the Union address trying to sell a plan to private Social Security. It went exactly nowhere--and that was back when half of the American people liked the president and thought he could be trusted. Bush’s job approval rating has fallen from 50 percent to 39 percent over the past year; the number of Americans who think he’s “honest and straightforward” has fallen from 50 percent to 38 percent.
It’s been less than a year since Bush won his second White House term. Yet polls already show that Americans would prefer to be led by Democrats, rather than Republicans--a finding that may foreshadow a rebalancing of party power in Washington, D.C., following the November 2006 midterm elections. (A new strategy memo, written by Democratic analysts James Carville and Stan Greenberg, suggests that Dems can enhance their chances of a takeover by hitting the GOP hard on “culture of corruption” issues, which they say tie together otherwise amorphous doubts about the country’s direction, “and makes them matter to people’s lives”). Way back in the 1990s, “partisan gridlock” and “obstructionists” were considered to be bad things; now, according to the aforementioned Journal/NBC News poll, 58 percent of respondents want Democrats to stall the GOP from going too far with its ideological agenda, while a minority of 34 percent hope Dems will work with their congressional opponents in a bipartisan way to avoid gridlock.

Democrats might not be the only ones giving Dubya headaches as he sets out to fulfill more of the promises he’ll be making tonight than he did those featured in previous SOTUs. His fellow Republicans, justly emboldened by Bush’s low approval ratings, are likely to abandon him on a variety of significant issues over the next couple of years, as they look out for their own political welfare, no matter the sort or extent of Dubya’s own strategic and legislative efforts. And though I don’t consider it likely that Congress will impeach Bush for his Nixonian abuses of power and violations of the law, the fact that the subject has become commonplace both in the nation’s capital and the more extensive hinterlands demonstrates the intensity of displeasure with Bush’s behavior (and arrogant misbehavior). Continuing revelations about the White House’s once-clandestine domestic surveillance campaign have not only captured the public’s attention, but have provoked GOP stalwarts such as Senators Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania to question the prez’s end run around Congress in ignoring provisions of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), so that such warrantless spying could take place. “If he needs more authority,” Hagel said last Sunday on ABC-TV’s This Week, “he just can’t unilaterally decide that that 1978 law is out of date and he will be the guardian of America and he will violate that law. He needs to come back, work with us, work with the courts if he has to, and we will do what we need to do to protect the civil liberties of this country and the national security of this country.”

GOP spinmeisters are already lowering expectations for Tuesday’s televised address. There will likely be little drama, and certainly nothing unexpected in the way of proposals (since the administration has been dribbling out bits and pieces of Bush’s scaled-down agenda over the last two weeks). Suggestions that Democrats demonstrate the U.S. electorate’s growing dissatisfaction with the prez’s power-grabbing and his efforts to pack the Supreme Court with anti-abortion judges, by collectively standing up at some point and silently walking out of the House chamber will probably not come to pass (though the move would undoubtedly gain the attention even of today’s GOP-friendly mainstream media). Instead, tonight will bring still another State of the Union address that is primarily pomp and circumstance without follow-up or enduring impact. Maybe ol’ Tom Jefferson had it right when he let a forgettable clerk deliver what he understood was a forgettable message to a Congress whose deeds would be, for the most part, best forgotten.

READ MORE:The Silliest Speech in the Union: What’s Wrong With the President’s Annual Address,” by John Dickerson (Slate); “Will America’s New Love Affair With the Truth Extend to Bush’s SOTU Speech?” by Arianna Huffington (The Huffington Post); “President Aims to Rally America After Dismal Year,” by Andrew Buncombe (The Independent); “The World According to George W. Bush” (The Independent); “A Good Time for Some Creativity,” by Steve Benen (The Carpetbagger Report); “NSA Surveillance: How It Puts You in Danger,” by SusanG (Daily Kos).

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