Altered State

Wednesday, February 1, 2006

HE SOUNDED more subdued than triumphant, more realistic than grandiose. But if last night's State of the Union speech displayed a more cautious, less assertive President Bush than in previous years, his caution was not merely a contrast to the swashbuckling style of the past but an outgrowth of it. The president's future horizons are constrained by his past choices, budgetary and political. At home, expensive tax cuts and a Medicare prescription drug entitlement limit his scope for new initiatives. Abroad, the commitment of troops, money and diplomatic capital to Iraq has narrowed the president's options.

On the domestic front, Mr. Bush might have untied his own hands by thinking freshly about the nation's central challenge: the budgetary consequences of the baby boomers' retirement. Although the president invoked this problem, he did not offer new ideas. Having already convened one commission on Social Security and then failed to secure reform, Mr. Bush had the temerity to propose, yes, another commission on entitlements -- as if people are still waiting to be told that they are unsustainable. On health care, which poses an even bigger fiscal challenge than Social Security, Mr. Bush served up a sensible proposal to limit doctors' liability that has so far failed in Congress. He invoked the potential of medical information technology -- again reasonable, again not new. His only semi-fresh idea was to extend the use of tax-protected health savings accounts. These would drain money from the budget, they would be regressive, and they would constrain health spending far less than the administration hopes.

In his most vigorous passage on domestic issues, Mr. Bush asserted that America is "addicted to oil." He attached himself to a lofty goal -- "to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025" -- but his deadline is far off, and it's not clear what he intends in practice. If Mr. Bush believed in markets he would tax the undesirable form of energy, hydrocarbons, and allow other forms to compete. Instead he seems intent on increasing research budgets for alternative fuels.

Mr. Bush was at his most reasonable in calling for more spending on math and science. This is not a bandwagon he invented: A recent report commissioned by Congress advanced similar ideas, and last week a bipartisan group of senators unveiled a bill that would enact the report's agenda. But the president's support is nonetheless welcome. Investing in science is both desirable and a clear government responsibility.

Mr. Bush vowed to stick with his ambitious goals of building democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan and combating tyranny elsewhere in the world. In implicit acknowledgment of the hardships and setbacks those missions have encountered, he argued that "in a time of testing, we cannot find security by abandoning our commitments and retreating within our borders." But the president's rhetoric was considerably more constrained than before. He paired promises of "victory" in Iraq with plans to bring home American troops. He vowed again to defeat radical Islamic terrorists but said little about the threat of rogue regimes such as Iran and North Korea acquiring nuclear weapons. The president who four years ago vowed that "I will not wait on events while dangers gather" said last night that it was up to "the nations of the world" to counter Tehran's nuclear ambitions, and he made no mention of a North Korean atomic arsenal that probably is larger now than in 2002.

Last night's speech was full of such gaps. Mr. Bush said nothing about the rocky launch of the new Medicare prescription drug plan. Tax reform, once a promised centerpiece of a second term, was nowhere to be found. The president made just a glancing reference to the Jack Abramoff corruption scandal, saying he supported efforts "to strengthen the ethical standards of Washington." He defended warrantless eavesdropping, saying that the "terrorist surveillance program . . . remains essential to the security of America" -- without giving any hint of the serious legal questions surrounding his activities. In all, the speech reflected Mr. Bush's changed political circumstances, and it displayed little ambition to tackle some of America's greatest challenges at home or abroad.

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