A New Tone

For the all the hype generated over energy policies and health-care proposals, last night’s State of the Union Message ended up being less about what President Bush said than how he said it. In his second-to-last major speech before the Congress, Bush sounded like a different leader than he was just a year ago, a reflection of the difficult political circumstances he faces in Washington heading into the final years of his presidency.

Last year, Bush came before Congress as a man who refused to cede any ground on Iraq, lambasting Democrats for their “defeatism” on the war. Last night was a different story, as Bush essentially pleaded with Democrats and many Republicans to stick with him on his plan to send additional troops to Iraq. “This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we are in,” Bush somberly admitted, urging lawmakers to “give it a chance to work.” Few presidents in recent memory have ever been so contrite in a speech before the Congress, but that’s the political reality Bush finds himself in.

Heading into Tuesday night’s address, Bush was more unpopular than any president on the eve of a State of the Union address since Richard Nixon back in 1974 when he went before Congress plagued by Watergate. According to the latest NEWSWEEK poll, released last weekend, only 31 percent of those polled approve of the job Bush is doing. But it’s not just that the public thinks he’s doing a bad job. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Monday night found that Bush is taking hits when it comes to how much America trusts him. Just a third of those polled credit Bush as being “honest and straightforward,” and only two thirds think his performance as president is going to get better. A majority of those surveyed said they’d rather see the Democratic Congress set policy for the country. In other words, Bush has fallen hard since he won over the nation back in 2000 by promising to restore honor and integrity to the office of the presidency.

It’s still hard to see where Bush will find significant common ground with Congress, even on policy beyond Iraq. Democrats seemed enthusiastic about Bush’s most ambitious proposal of the night—a plan to cut gasoline consumption by 20 percent over the next 10 years. Yet many Republicans don’t like the idea. His proposal to change the tax code to make health insurance more affordable had drawn mixed reactions from not just Democrats but also many Republicans who say it’s a tax increase in disguise. As he did last year, Bush urged lawmakers to work with him to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws. He got a mixed response from the audience—especially Republicans, who didn’t clap at all when Bush renewed his call for a guest-worker program.

Indeed, the drama of any State of the Union lies less in the detailed policy proposals than the needle of the applause-o-meter. This year the real test of the president's power was how often he could generate a standing ovation, and how the two parties—especially his own—would respond to his lines on Iraq.

As it happened, the two biggest applauses went to nonpartisan lines. The first was the president's warm words for the first woman to be elected House Speaker: Democrat Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi seemed genuinely touched by the surprise praise from a president whose deputy spokesperson had recently accused her of making poisonous comments on the war. The second came at the end for Wesley Autrey, who recently saved a stranger's life at a Harlem subway station.

Only one man seemed happier than Autrey during the State of the Union speech: Iowa's Sen. Chuck Grassley. Grassley looked like he'd won the jackpot, which in a sense Iowa's corn farmers have done. The president's promise to invest in ethanol (to meet some ambitious goals for reducing gasoline consumption) represents a bonanza for the ethanol industry in places like Iowa.

The smiles had long faded by the time the president started talking about the Middle East. At that point, Bush returned to some familiar themes about terrorism and freedom. Contrary to prespeech speculation, he restated his commitment to democracy in the region. Yet he continued to gloss over the inconvenient fact that what he called the "reformers and brave voices for democracy" in the Middle East are often the very extremists and radicals he sees as America's enemies. He also ignored the fact that all the regional allies he named as supportive of the Iraqi government—Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt—fall far short of his own democratic ideal.

Bush's previous State of the Union addresses have offered a platform for making the case for troops in Iraq. This year was no exception. The latest rationale amounts to this: withdrawal would trigger an apocalyptic war between Sunni and Shia extremists, backed by regional powers such as Iran. He described that prospect as "an epic battle" and "a nightmare scenario." He warned of "chaos" and "tragedy."

And his warnings worked in one sense: his party rose to its feet and cheered his promise of victory, while the Democrats sat on their hands. "Let us find our resolve and turn events toward victory," Bush said to GOP cheers. The Democrats seemed not to know how to respond.

It was one of Bush's few sure-footed moments on Iraq. Just a few seconds earlier, he suggested that leaving the battlefield would be dishonorable. "Every one of us wishes that this war were over and won," he said. "Yet it would not be like us to leave our promises unkept, our friends abandoned and our own security at risk." It's not clear who America's friends are in Iraq, and—judging from the polls—most Americans feel that the conflict has already placed American security at risk. As for unkept promises, the commitment of 140,000 troops (America’s current deployment) seems a high price to pay for the vague promise of democracy in Iraq.

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