So what is one to make of the State of the Union address last night? A superior instance of what is, you have to admit, one of the low forms of American speechmaking. When did the State of the Union descend into this kind of oopy-goopy, forty-eight-ovation touchy-feely-ness? All of Clinton’s attempts, certainly, and the senior Bush’s. But were Reagan’s addresses this bad? Were Nixon’s? Possibly. It’s a genre that seems to call out the worst in rhetoric.
Anyway, all in all, a good effort at the form for Bush, but too late to make much difference. Every two-term president suffers diminished power in his seventh and eight year, but with the Senate and the House lost to the Democrats, and no obvious successor candidate to anoint in his own party, Bush is in a weak position even for a lame-duck president. When you add in his low approval ratings, his power for anything new has almost entirely vanished. What we have gotten from the Bush presidency is about all we’re going to get.
And not even all of that older stuff. Last night’s State of the Union address didn’t mention faith-based initatives, which President Bush once claimed would be his great legacy. Of course, it didn’t mention abortion or stem cells, either¯in part because such speeches are designed to avoid controversy, and in part because the social-conservative domestic agenda seems dead in the last years of this administration. The White House may hold the line on whatever gains it feels it has already made, but it also signaled last night that it won’t be pushing hard for anything. School choice and judges each got a sentence, the only elements of social conservatism to surface in the speech.
On energy, immigration¯even on Iraq and terror¯there seemed little new in the speech. Earmark legislation was an interesting choice, but the problem belongs to Congress, not the executive branch, and Bush can’t solve it. On gasoline consumption, Bush called for policies to guide private enterprise, but, generally, the speech revealed a belief in the effectiveness of big government: for health-care reform, for success at fighting AIDS in Africa, for carrying on the war against terror, for controlling immigration, for enlarging the fight in Iraq.
He may be right in every particular, but it doesn’t seem particularly conservative to have that expansionist impulse for almost every problem he addressed in his State of the Union speech.