Did President Bush give a good speech last night? Yes. Did he give a great speech? Yes. Did he give a bad speech? Yes.
When I divide last night’s State of the Union address into three different speeches, I’m not referring to the three major sections of the speech. Those sections, connected by the theme of making the world better for future generations, called first for being “good stewards of this economy, and renew[ing] the great institutions on which millions of our fellow citizens rely,” second for “pass[ing] along the values that sustain a free society,” and third for leaving “an America that is safe from danger, and protected by peace.” But that was just a framing device. In this 5,000-word address, the real dividing lines were between the 1,100-word portion on Social Security reform — call that Speech One; the 2,200-word portion on foreign policy — call that Speech Two; and everything else– a Speech Three consisting of the dull laundry list of minor policy proposals that traditionally lard up State of the Union addresses, making them lose their rhetorical shape.
Speech One was a good explanation of the problems with the Social Security system, touching on some of the major reform proposals without committing to many specifics. The booing from the opposition — the first boos heard during a State of the Union address since Bill Clinton faced newly elected Republican majorities ten years ago — underscored that this is the fight that will dominate domestic politics this year.
Speech Two was the sequel to the second Inaugural address two weeks ago. In that speech, Bush laid out the broad principle that a long-term commitment to the spread of liberty is a national security priority without delving into the details. Here, Bush started to address those details, celebrating the bravery of the Iraqis who stared down terrorist threats to vote on Sunday and making some surprisingly specific calls for liberalization from regimes in the region. Oh, to be a fly on the wall in the halls of power in Riyadh, Cairo, Damascus, and Tehran during this passage:
The government of Saudi Arabia can demonstrate its leadership in the region by expanding the role of its people in determining their future. And the great and proud nation of Egypt, which showed the way toward peace in the Middle East, can now show the way toward democracy in the Middle East.
To promote peace in the broader Middle East, we must confront regimes that continue to harbor terrorists and pursue weapons of mass murder. Syria still allows its territory, and parts of Lebanon, to be used by terrorists who seek to destroy every chance of peace in the region. You have passed, and we are applying, the Syrian Accountability Act — and we expect the Syrian government to end all support for terror and open the door to freedom. Today, Iran remains the world’s primary state sponsor of terror — pursuing nuclear weapons while depriving its people of the freedom they seek and deserve. We are working with European allies to make clear to the Iranian regime that it must give up its uranium enrichment program and any plutonium re-processing, and end its support for terror. And to the Iranian people, I say tonight: As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you.
Near the end of Speech Two, and the State of the Union as a whole, Bush paid tribute to our troops, and we saw the moving image in the First Lady’s box of Iraqi democracy activist Safia Taleb al-Suhail, whose thank-you to American forces the President quoted from the podium, hugging Janet Norwood, the mother of a fallen Marine.
Combining Speech One and Speech Two into one address already made it, as State of the Union addresses tend to be, a speech that covers quite a bit of ground. The detritus of Speech Three was really too much: it made the first half of the address drag on with mini-proposals: job training, “strengthening” community colleges, increasing Pell Grants, community health centers for poor counties, tort reform targeting asbestos claims, a comprehensive energy strategy, a bipartisan tax-reform panel, a temporary guest-worker program, HIV/AIDS prevention, special training for defense attorneys in capital cases, and so on. Whatever the merits of these proposals, their ability to engage an audience is not one of them.
Yes, voters like to hear their favorite pet projects, which is why these laundry lists exist. But they dilute the power of a major address to address major issues. And major issues are not something we’re short on. Next year, Bush’s speechwriters ought to be more ruthless in their editing. A little fat-cutting could have vastly improved this speech, and might do wonders for the next one.