President Bush faced a nation with thinning patience and a Congress newly refashioned by the opposition party Tuesday, delivering no formal assessment of the state of the union but pleading for continued support in Iraq and advancing a list of domestic initiatives.
It was a speech long on laudable goals, but short on the specifics needed to reach them.
America remains strong, as a nation and as a concept of democratic government that offers a model for the world and for the future. But in the eyes of the world, America's shining ideal has been tarnished, at least temporarily, in ways that hamper our efforts to shape global developments elsewhere or intervene where we think intervention is needed. Our military is stretched thin, and we are spending borrowed money and tax revenues at rates that would make traditional Republicans gasp in horror.
In his remaining two years in office, Bush needs to salvage that situation and his own place in history. Tuesday, he decided to start doing that by trying to turn much of the national focus back to domestic issues.
The State of the Union is a goals-and-philosophy speech, not the more detailed proposal package that accompanies a budget. Calls for action generally remain vague, awaiting reshaping and debate. But such speeches can count heavily toward uniting the country and providing a sense of national purpose. This time, there was no deep sense of unity before or after the address. In the Democratic response, Virginia Sen. James Webb quickly called on Bush to change course in Iraq and do more to close the wealth gap in America.
Tuesday, the president turned first to a call for stronger bipartisan action on national policies -- a conciliatory tone forced upon him by the recent elections -- and then to a series of domestic issues. The Iraq War and other foreign policy issues came late in the speech, with Bush's plea for patience with Iraq policy and his latest troop surge sandwiched between a call for quick Senate votes on judicial nominations and a reiteration of widely-supported reliance on diplomacy to find solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian standoff and nuclear proliferation in North Korea.
Much of the president's domestic agenda was notable more for what he didn't say, than for what he did say.
Nowhere was the gap between goal and policy wider than in the president's combined energy and environmental proposal. Bush commendably called for deeper reductions in gasoline consumption and pollution as a key means of reducing American dependence on foreign oil and lessening national vulnerability. But his path to that goal relies heavily on emerging technologies and far less on a quicker and more effective path, conservation. His call for selective mileage-standard restructuring, critics contend, would be far less effective than simply setting tougher fleet-wide standards for automakers. And despite a recent plea by an unusual coalition of large industries and environmental groups, Bush did not delve deeply into possible new carbon-emission standards to limit a major greenhouse gas.
Bush's general call for broader health care insurance coverage, to be encouraged through a large tax deduction, also needs debate. Already given a cool reception by Congress, such a deduction would benefit fewer than half of the 45.3 million uninsured Americans, according to a Tax Foundation study, simply because they make too little to pay taxes now and thus couldn't use a deduction.
In the end, though, Iraq overshadows everything Bush may want to do as he serves out his term. The administration is relying heavily on the Iraqi government to meet "benchmarks" and pull out a victory. Not all Republicans were applauding, Tuesday. Not all Americans are, either.