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A Reality-Based State of the Union

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, January 19, 2007

For those of you who can't wait until Tuesday's big speech, my fellow Americans, here's the real state of the union:

A president who reduces the near-infinite variety of humankind to "with us" or "against us" has mired the nation in a disastrous, unnecessary war. Comparisons to Vietnam are imprecise -- the American casualties in Iraq are lower, the geopolitical stakes are much higher and the damage to our nation's standing in the world has been incalculable.

Some believe that the president sees clearly the futility of his ill-advised war and that at this point he's just stalling so his successor will take the fall for an eventual American withdrawal. Those cynics are wrong; George W. Bush has demonstrated time and again that he values resolve over reason.

The us-or-them president is now assuming an elbows-out posture toward Iran that is disturbingly reminiscent of the run-up to war in Iraq -- denunciations, threats, a military buildup in the Persian Gulf. Haven't we seen this movie before?

Oh, and the president's tic of smiling at inappropriate moments -- such as when he's answering a question from Scott Pelley or Jim Lehrer about the human costs of the war -- has become a little scary.

Congress is effectively powerless to stop the president from escalating his futile war with a "surge" of 21,500 troops. But Republicans are joining the new Democratic majority in opposition to the war, and this growing, bipartisan consensus threatens to pit Capitol Hill against the White House in an increasingly bitter confrontation.

In other news, fellow citizens, scientists reported that 2006 was the warmest year on record for the United States. The first half of January 2007 was so balmy in the Northeast that crocuses bloomed. Only recently has the president begun to pay grudging lip service to global warming, while firmly resisting measures -- such as capping carbon emissions -- that might actually mitigate the pressure humans are putting on the climate system. I've begun to wonder how a row of palm trees would look in my back yard.

More than a year after the president pledged to rebuild New Orleans, the city is still a ghost of its former self. Neighborhoods remain devastated, residents still can't go home, businesses can't function without workers or customers, and now a brutal crime wave has filled the crippled city with fear. Had Bush fulfilled his promise with quick, comprehensive, effective federal assistance in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina -- a Marshall Plan for the Gulf Coast -- the city might be back on its feet. As things stand, it's not a question of when New Orleans will fully recover, but if.

Fellow Americans, you have come to see economic inequality as a major issue, especially those of you who live in parts of the country that have suffered from the effects of globalization. This phenomenon is poorly understood here in Washington, and your government has offered you no solutions. Candidates who find a way to talk about the widening gap between haves and have-nots are likely to do well in 2008.

The debate over the war drowned out one of the most significant events of the week in Washington: a joint news conference Tuesday by the Business Roundtable, AARP and the Service Employees International Union to call for health-care reform. The nation's biggest corporations, its most influential consumer group and its most aggressive labor union came together to demand that an unfair, expensive, inefficient system be fixed. Massachusetts and California have already begun to tackle the problem. Maybe someday the White House and Congress will get into the game.

The immigration issue continues to smolder and surely will flare up again. In education, No Child Left Behind hasn't begun to live up to its promises. Many Americans fear that their children's lives will not be as prosperous as their own.

But the state of the union is not all bad, my fellow Americans. When the president gives his speech, one of those two seats behind him will be occupied by a woman, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi -- a first, and an undeniable sign of progress. The two leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination are a woman and a black man -- more progress. The nation spoke clearly, and loudly, in the midterm elections, and now there's a counterbalance to the out-of-control White House.

Yes, Washington can be thickheaded and slow. You may have to repeat yourselves a few more times, fellow Americans, but eventually the message will get through.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com

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