Tuesday, January 31, 2006

State of the Union Is Good

President George W. Bush stood his ground before a brazenly defiant bi-partisan Congress this evening and laid out what has to have been one of the most timid and unambitious speeches of his presidency.

His defense of "freedom is on the march" seemed like it came out of a can and, in light of the Hamas victory in Palestine and the gains of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, its tone of triumphalism rang almost hollow.

His challenge to Iran seemed particularly bland and innocuous. He almost sounded like an echo of John Kerry in linking US policy and a resolution of the Iran nuclear crisis to our European allies.

He spoke nicely to the Iranian people themselves but gave them nothing to hope for in the way of American intervention or even any cause for optimism that the United States would step in and help them should they attempt civil unrest or a counter-revolution against the ayotollahs.

North Korea was mentioned only in passing, alongside Zimbabwe and Burma. On the other hand, Israel was not mentioned at all, an omission that, frankly, concerns me .

The tributes to US military personnel and their families were, perhaps, the most sincere and effective parts of his speech. For the most part, they received bi-partisan support. The father, mother and widow of SSgt Dan Clay, killed in Fallujah last month, while appropriate, also seemed somewhat staged to counter the Cindy Sheehan outraged-mother-as-a-victim media circus. The word "exploited" even flitted (momentarily) through my thoughts.

Cindy herself had received a gallery pass from a Democratic Congresswoman but was, according to news reports, hurried away in handcuffs before the President entered. Why? It's not exactly clear but apparently she had a rolled-up banner of some sort on her lap that she was either actually beginning to unfurl or appeared to be preparing to do so, perhaps later, during the speech.

Bush did lob a few shots over the Democrat's bow but with little effect. He effectively defended his warrantless NSA "terrorist surveillance" policy (providing an opportunity for the cameras to zoom in on an almost bemused Hillary Clinton, who remained seated as the Republican side of the aisle rose in a standing ovation.

The response was similar when Bush called for the full reinstatement of the "Patriot Act." The Democrats took a direct hit to the chin but did not seem overwhelmed by the jab.

On the matter of Social Security reform Bush handed the Democrats a birthday present when he reminded everyone that his reform proposal had been defeated. The entire Democratic side of the aisle rose with applause, cheers and, for the only time during the evening a celebration of triumph.

Perhaps Bush believed that his demand that Congress face up to the issue would provide a counter punch. It didn't seem to have any effect. But it did allow him to call for a bi-partisan committee to seek out a solution to the Social Security fiasco that could actually accomplish something tangible. Both sides rose with applause in response....so maybe it wasn't such a bad gesture after all. As regards Social Security, it shouldn't be politics but public interest that is served. I believe that Bush scored a point here but was, perhaps, unnecessarily subtle about it.

As should be obvious to just about anyone, the single most favorable domestic issue to the Bush administration is the state of the US economy. Surprisingly, unless I fell asleep for a moment, I heard nothing about this, either. A little bragging on this score could have segued into a recognition of outgoing Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan and his replacement, Ben Bernanke, who had been confirmed by the US Senate earlier in the day.

Appropriate acknowledgment was made to Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King Jr., who passed away at home in her sleep early this morning.

Appropriate also was the effort that went into the hurried swearing in of new Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito this afternoon, whose nomination had also been confirmed by Senate vote earlier today. His presence, and that of new Chief Justice Roberts (sans "stripes" thank God) among the "nine" was, perhaps, the most visible example of Bush's ascendant political influence during the entire evening.

Alito's admission to the Court also gave Bush the pleasure of announcing the retirement of Sandra Day O'Connor; an announcement that brought polite applause from all sides (although not, perhaps, for the same reasons).

There were, of course, a number of "initiatives" concerning litigation against OBGYN physicians and energy policy. But, while sounding substantive, it is unlikely that either will be prosecuted during an election year.

All in all I was disappointed in tonight's speech. The lack of a bold clarity on Iran and the lack of mention of our nation's firm commitment to the continued existence of Israel seemed to project an air of confusion and uncertainty into our foreign policy.

Even though I would give the speech little more than a C+ or a B- I still enjoyed one statement more than all the others combined. With a firm and steady stare fixed on the Democrats, Bush declared,
"...hindsight is not wisdom and second-guessing is not strategy."
That, at least, was a home run deep into McCovey Cove.