January 24, 2007 [LINK / comment]

The State of the Union, 2007

President Bush came across as sincere and committed to his goals in his State of the Union address last night, but there wasn't much surprise in terms of what he said. This speech was in an even more somber in tone than the one last year, and it seemed shorter and more to the point than most such addresses. He made fittingly gracious gestures to Speaker Pelosi, and he acknowledged the new political realities in Washington, but then went on to make policy proposals as if nothing had changed. Given the election results and recent poll numbers, his call on Democrats in Congress to show the world that America stands united against our enemies seemed rather incongruous. What could he or his speechwriters have been thinking?* The appeal to bipartisan cooperation would have carried a lot more weight when the Republicans were still in the majority. The full text is available at whitehouse.gov.

Surging ahead in Iraq

Iraq was the main topic on the agenda, but Bush said little that might convince skeptics of his plan to send 20,000 more troops there. His warning that failure in Iraq would have "grievous and far-reaching" consequences fell on deaf ears. He must know how weak his domestic support is, so if he really believes that failure to win in Iraq would be so awful, then why in the world is he putting so much at stake? It's the same question I posed two weeks ago. A prudent regard for safeguarding the national interest would make a higher priority of minimizing potential losses, but that is not Bush's style. There is a major disconnect here.

Mideast democracy?

Bush rightly put the Iraq conflict in the broader context of Middle Eastern political trends, as the Bush Doctrine of promoting democratic reform has been thwarted and even reversed over the past year. Bush put the blame squarely on Hezbollah, which has been very busy sabotaging the moderate government in Lebanon, aided by the mullahs in Iran. What is unclear is what we are going to do about this vicious challenge to peace and freedom. In Monday's Washington Post, Jackson Diehl called attention to the abandonment of this central foreign policy goal, as Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice tours the Middle East: "Rice has made no real attempt to explain the somersault in her policy, which comes across as a feckless attempt to simplify the increasingly chaotic and dangerous situation across the region." Back in May 2005 there was room for plenty of optimism, but not now. Nevertheless, the struggle against Islamic extremists goes on, and will continue for years and years to come, no matter who occupies the White House.

Health insurance

Bush is seeking a tax hike? On the rich?? Well, he did propose a tax break for those who purchase their own medical insurance, offsetting the loss in revenue by a new tax on high-priced health-care plans that workers receive from their employers. See Washington Post. Hallelujah! On this single matter, Bush rescued the last two years of his term in office by taking a big step forward on a critical issue. I'm not sure about the specifics, but the overall goal of eliminating implicit government subsidies for health insurance is a big step in the right direction. Last month (second item), John Graham wrote a good critique of how health insurance entitlements cause medical costs to soar through the roof. This happens because government policy keeps individuals in the dark about how much their health insurance really costs. Ironically, Rep. Chris Van Hollen and other Democrats reflexively opposed this creative suggestion by Bush -- standing up for Americans in the upper tax brackets! How ironic is that?

Giving Bush credit

It's easy to ridicule Bush, and I don't mean to let him off the hook for some serious errors in military strategy and public policy. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize some of his biggest achievements, such as fighting AIDS and other diseases in Africa and other tropical regions. Likewise, his administration has moved forward on international economic issues, signing trade agreements with several Latin American countries even though their governments are left of center. Then there is the matter of leadership style. In the Washington Post, Dan Balz looked at Bush's remarkable ability to keep bouncing back from adversity. Call it stubbornness, or call it resolve; it's better than indecisive pandering. Even Bush's opponents should acknowledge that it takes a lot of guts to stand up in a room full of hostile faces, knowing that national and world opinion are stacked strongly against you, and still deliver a confident speech, sticking to his guns. How many of us could do that? "Poise" is defined as grace under pressure.

* Jules Crittenden wrote an alternative, extremely blunt speech that Bush should have given: "The State of the Union Is a Disaster." The point being that Bush would probably get more done by frankly admitting failures and setbacks, laying on the line what a dangerous world we live in, and showing a willingness to make hard bargains with Congress to get important things done. (via Instapundit)

Webb snarls back

Virginia's new senator James "Born Fighting" Webb gave the Democrats' response, which was a mixture of reasonable suggestions and caustic sarcasm about Bush's "reckless" decision to liberate Iraq. One can certainly question how the occupation was handled without such below-the-belt smears. Well, it's not like we didn't know that's what he was like before the election...