Friday, February 03, 2006

The Say One Thing, Do Nothing Presidency

[[P O L I T I C S]] * I really thought I was done writing about George W. Bush’s 2006 State of the Union address. But two new newspaper columns have me reluctantly revisiting that subject. The first comes from Washington Post political analyst E.J. Dionne Jr., who describes Bush’s speech as something akin to cotton candy for the masses--all flavor, no substance:
It comes to pass when an incumbent president signals that the energy is rapidly draining from his political project. The opposition, if it possesses any sense and creativity, has an opening to move the country in a different direction.

President Bush’s State of the Union message on Tuesday was an “Is That All There Is?” speech. The Democrats should be sued by one of their own trial lawyers if they fail to seize their opportunity. The speech had its rhetorical moments, but there were so many holes where policy should have been, and many of the policies that were there didn’t much sound like Bush. ...

Bush thinks he has a political winner in warrantless wiretapping. Maybe there is one more election for the Republicans in bashing “defeatism,” “isolationism” and “retreat.” But those words didn’t exactly signal the “civil tone” and “spirit of good will” Bush had promised a couple of pages earlier.

The president’s foreign policy rhetoric, like so much else on Tuesday, was predictable and familiar. Bush once dreamed of leading a political realignment. What his speech signaled is an opening for a realignment of ideas. His side is running out of them.
Over at The New York Times, meanwhile, Paul Krugman--one of the few economists I can read without frequent intravenous fixes of No-Doz--writes that the Bush administration’s manifest inability to get things done derives directly from its focus on message rather than substance:
So President Bush’s plan to reduce imports of Middle East oil turns out to be no more substantial than his plan--floated two years ago, then flushed down the memory hole--to send humans to Mars. ...

In the State of the Union address, Mr. Bush suggested that “cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol” and other technologies would allow us “to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East.”

But the next day, officials explained that
he didn’t really mean what he said. “This was purely an example,” said Samuel Bodman, the energy secretary. And the administration has actually been scaling back the very research that Mr. Bush hyped on Tuesday night: the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is about to lay off staff because of cuts to its budget. ...

Why announce impressive sounding goals when you have no plan to achieve them? The best guess is that the energy “plan” was hastily thrown together to give Mr. Bush something positive to say.

For weeks administration sources told reporters that the State of the Union address would focus on health care. But at the last minute the White House might have realized that its health care proposals, based on the idea that Americans have too much insurance, would suffer the same political fate as its attempt to privatize Social Security. ...

There is a common theme underlying the botched reconstruction of Iraq, the
botched response to Katrina (which Mr. Bush never mentioned), the botched drug program and the nonexistent energy program.

John DiIulio, the former White House head of faith-based policy,
explained it more than three years ago. He told the reporter Ron Suskind how this administration operates: “There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus. ... I heard many, many staff discussions but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions. There were no actual policy white papers on domestic issues.”

In other words, this administration is all politics and no policy. It knows how to attain power, but has no idea how to govern. That is why the administration was caught unaware when Katrina hit, and why it was totally unprepared for the predictable problems with its drug plan. It is why Mr. Bush announced an energy plan with no substance behind it. And it is why the state of the union--the thing itself and not the speech--is so grim.
One has to wonder why the U.S. media keep paying so much attention to Bush’s supposed “big ideas,” when he clearly doesn’t pay enough attention to them himself.

READ MORE:The Deficit of Ideas,” by Steve Benen (The Carpetbagger Report); “What Isolationism?” by Andrew J. Bacevich (Los Angeles Times); “President Bush’s Words Ring Hollow to Soldiers’ Loved Ones,” by Elizabeth Frederick (The Baltimore Sun); “If It Had Been Al,” by Dwight Meredith (Wampum).

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