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Remember Last Year's Speech? You're Not Alone

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Spoken today, forgotten tomorrow.

Remember hydrogen cars, Social Security personal accounts and the USA Freedom Corps? What about the Prison Re-Entry Initiative or Jobs for the 21st Century? They all played major roles in President Bush's State of the Union addresses in recent years. But while some of those ideas have taken on life, others have been stillborn. Either way, most have faded from the average viewer's memory.

A year ago, the domestic centerpiece of Bush's State of the Union message was a push for adopting private Social Security accounts that would give individuals some control over investing their retirement dollars while ultimately trimming costs to the federal government. He devoted 11 paragraphs, or one-fifth of the speech, to this topic. "I know that none of these reforms would be easy," he said. "But we have to move ahead with courage and honesty, because our children's retirement security is more important than partisan politics."

Partisan politics prevailed, though. The administration never came forward with a specific plan. Instead it argued for its concept, asked Congress to come up with details and challenged Democrats to offer an alternative. When the Democrats refused, the initiative stalemated.

The rest of Bush's 54-paragraph speech last year was a laundry list of goals and positions. Except for foreign policy (22 paragraphs), all other topics were relegated to a paragraph or a sentence.

Most of them were familiar long before the State of the Union address itself. Bush said he'd support a "culture of life" and a constitutional amendment to "protect the institution of marriage." He had made almost identical comments about a constitutional amendment nearly a year earlier.

Others led to commissions that led nowhere. Bush said the tax code was "archaic" and "incoherent." But after a bipartisan tax code commission came out with its proposals late last year, Americans yawned or recoiled. At least so far, the administration has not acted upon them.

The president also took advantage of the opportunity to promote his budget proposals, which generally come out just after the State of the Union address. Bush said he would keep the deficit on a path to drop in half by 2009. In fact, the current budget deficit is larger than it was last year . The administration says it will be greater than $400 billion this year, greater than the $318 billion in fiscal year 2005. Part of the reason is more than $50 billion of Hurricane Katrina-related spending in fiscal year 2006. But even without Katrina, and even if the administration's estimate is too high (as the Congressional Budget Office said last week), the deficit still seems to be heading in the wrong direction.

Some things Bush advocated were very detailed. He said he would help 200,000 people get job training and increase the size of Pell grants for education. Bush subsequently asked Congress to increase money for job training, but in the final budget the money devoted to Job Corps, and summer youth programs, and training dislocated workers dropped by 5.2 percent, according to staff members of the House Appropriations Committee. He did manage to get a 5.4 percent increase for the main student assistance account, including Pell grants, which go to help students in need pay for college. But while the president and House Republicans promised that low-income students would receive a $100 increase in the maximum Pell Grant, the maximum grant was frozen for the fourth consecutive year at $4,050. Meanwhile, the cost of a four-year public college education has increased $3,095 (or 34 percent) since 2001.

The list went on, and on: legal reform, tax credits to help the poor buy health insurance, health care savings accounts, legislation to make America less dependent on foreign oil, a temporary guest worker program, and a three-year program (led by the first lady) to keep youths out of gangs. The inspiration of the moment was the point; who remembers that hardly any of the ideas came to fruition?

-- Steven Mufson, for Outlook

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