Magazine article The American Prospect

Starting Over

Magazine article The American Prospect

Starting Over

Article excerpt

IN HIS STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS IN JANUARY, George W. Bush is widely expected to try to relaunch his presidency. That he needs a new start is a reflection of just how badly his second term has gone, even in the eyes of conservatives. His domestic initiatives regarding Social Security and tax reform are dead in the water, and every milestone in Iraq has proved to be a mirage. Still, he is president for another three years, the future of our country depends on his decisions, and the potential damage to the nation from a failed presidency and fruitless war puts the opposition in a difficult position.

We can visualize the moment when Bush enters the House of Representatives for the annual rite. Democrats as well as Republicans will greet him with a thunderous ovation, and after he is introduced they will rise to applaud again. With Dick Cheney and Dennis Hastert sitting behind him, the president will tell us that the state of our union is strong. The boyish smile will then fade from his face as he somberly thanks our servicemen and women risking their lives around the world. A moment later, he may seem downright cocky as he claims the economy is booming and cites a few favorable figures to make his case. As he recounts his accomplishments, he will gracefully share credit with the Congress for the Medicare prescription drug plans in which seniors will be enrolled. And he will declare that we are making progress in Iraq and must stay the course.

Those are among the predictable elements, but the speech will also have to break some ground to make the idea of a new beginning believable. The difficulty here is that Bush's own policies have reduced his room for maneuver; he doesn't have the money for another prescription drug plan, the votes for reconstructing the tax system, or the troops for another war. He also faces the tricky task of keeping faith with his base, while at least appearing conciliatory to a broader audience. All the demands of the occasion suggest we may see one of those periodic appearances of Bush as compassionate conservative. It's a role he has shown he can perform artfully--and cheaply--by seizing on symbolic policies in the style Bill Clinton perfected or simply by making great promises and then not following through, as he did after Hurricane Katrina.

The theatricality of the State of the Union lends itself to presidential gestures. …

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