For all the hype, the State of the Union speech has a disappointing history. Few presidents have ever delivered a memorable address. Despite a few rhetorical flourishes that stick—41’s “thousand points of light,” for example—most are just laundry lists of promises soon broken or forgotten. Remember President Clinton’s detailed plan to store up 15 years of budget surpluses in order to salvage Social Security? Neither do we. President Bush has uttered one memorable State of the Union phrase in his six-year tenure: “axis of evil.” You don’t hear it much around the White House these days.
Despite the speech’s sorry history, Bush knows he needs a big night tonight. His last address, announcing a “surge” of American troops as his new way forward in Iraq, failed to catch fire with the public, and left a growing group within his own party looking for other answers. In order to come out from under the Iraq cloud, and regain momentum on his domestic agenda, Bush is returning to a topic featured prominently in his first address to Congress, back in 2001: energy. “America must become more energy-independent, and we will,” he promised that year. He returned to that theme last year. “We have a serious problem,” he said. “America is addicted to oil.”
This year’s model will break new ground on global warming, the West Wing promises. “This will be the first State of the Union in which he talks about climate change,” says one unnamed senior aide who talked about the speech before delivery. “The new policies are focused on energy, which definitely has an environmental impact.” Bush will “aggressively” promote a package of new ideas on alternative energy, the aide says, building on last year’s drive to convert the country to hybrids—cars powered by ethanol and hydrogen.
The problem for the White House is that—as with his earlier Iraq speech—expectations have grown far too high. Bush’s aides say that the speculation about their new energy proposals led to erroneous reports of plans to impose a carbon tax or caps on carbon emissions. Anything less will surely disappoint environmental activists—and they will be getting substantially less than they want from Tuesday night’s speech.
Still, Bush warmed to the green agenda earlier than his critics give him credit for. In July 2005, he created an Asia-Pacific partnership with Australia, China, India, Japan and South Korea to work on “clean development, energy security and climate change.” The partnership was focused on new energy technologies, rather than a Kyoto-style treaty or restrictions on carbon emissions. A few weeks earlier, at the G8 summit in Scotland, he also came under intense pressure from Britain’s Tony Blair to embrace environmentalism. At that time, he cited his 2002 plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 18 percent, relative to the size of the economy, by 2012. “Based upon scientific evidence, the goal of the United States is to … neutralize and then reduce emissions of greenhouse gases over time,” Bush told reporters in Scotland. “What I didn’t agree to was a way forward that … would have endangered our economy, and a way forward that excluded developing nations.”
If tonight’s speech won’t break radical new ground on the subject, it will represent a change of tone in how Bush addresses problems of climate change and America’s dependence on foreign sources of energy, the aide says.
Another change of tone to watch for tonight: how he talks about his political opposition. Bush will offer his congratulations to Democrats for winning November’s elections, and urge them to take the opportunity to work together with him. “The underlying tone of it is that there’s this cynicism throughout the country that nothing can get done, because of the atmosphere in Washington,” the senior Bush aide said. “‘Prove them wrong’ is what he’ll be saying.”
Roughly half of the speech will be devoted to domestic issues like energy, new health-care proposals (announced at the weekend) and immigration. The remainder will go toward a fresh pitch for Bush’s new way forward in Iraq, and the broader war on terror, among other foreign-policy issues. The president will stress the human face of his foreign policy, playing up policies on HIV/AIDS and malaria.
Inside the West Wing, Bush aides are mindful of the need to shake up the traditional State of the Union format. The president will abandon what Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political scientist and longtime Bush watcher, calls the standard “laundry list aimed at pleasing dozens of interests.” In its stead, Bush’s aide says, the president will take a more thematic approach. Will it work? Can any president reinvent the staid State of the Union formula six years in? Buchanan says it’s a steep climb. “He must stop the erosion of public support if he is to scrape together enough presidential credibility to get off of political life support, with only his commander in chief Constitutional authority to fall back on during his last two years,” says Buchanan. “Is it possible? Maybe, but something more than a speech will be needed; like some good news out of Iraq, and some positive legislative achievements. The odds are long at this point.”
According to a new poll for the Associated Press, President Bush’s approval numbers are low, at 36 percent—but not as low as they were at the start of the year. A majority of Americans—53 percent—believe the president is likable. But an even bigger majority of Americans—83 percent—also believe he is stubborn. They’ve got a point there. There may be cosmetic changes, and a push to promote new topics to the top of the agenda. But don’t expect the president to make too much history tonight.