State of Troubles

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

PRESIDENT BUSH offered the usual assurances last night about the healthy state of the union, but the state of his presidency has never been worse. He faces a Democratic majority in both chambers of Congress and a public increasingly unhappy about the war in Iraq and disenchanted with his leadership. By the time he delivers next year's State of the Union address, the primaries will be underway, and Mr. Bush's relevance will be fading. If he is to have a final chance to shape policy, this is it.

For that reason, Mr. Bush was probably right to save discussion of foreign policy for the second half of last night's speech. At this point, there isn't much he can do to convince skeptics in Congress or the public about the correctness of his approach in Iraq; the time to craft a policy with more public support and bipartisan agreement passed with Mr. Bush's speech two weeks ago. Mr. Bush's goal last night was not so much to argue anew for the troop increase but to drive home the point that the "consequences of failure would be grievous and far reaching." On this, Mr. Bush is assuredly correct.

There are more opportunities for bipartisan cooperation domestically, but here what was most significant -- and disappointing -- was what Mr. Bush left off his agenda. Once again, he did not offer a sustained and broad-scale effort to address climate change, instead choosing to treat progress on the issue as just a fortuitous byproduct of his effort to cut gasoline consumption. Similarly, Mr. Bush -- having tried and failed to reform Social Security, having promised a commission on entitlements in last year's State of the Union that he never managed to convene -- referred only briefly, and without specifics, to the need to tackle the coming explosion in entitlement spending. And at a time when the country could benefit from a serious discussion of the importance of free trade and the parallel need to mitigate the disruptions of globalization, Mr. Bush referred just glancingly to trade.

Mr. Bush concentrated his pitch on four domestic areas: energy, health care, immigration reform and reauthorization of his signature education measure, the No Child Left Behind Act. He called for reducing gasoline consumption by 20 percent in the next decade, in part by adopting new fuel economy standards but mostly through increased reliance on alternative fuels. These initiatives are attractive, but it's not clear that the president's ambitious plan -- he'd increase alternative fuel use from the current 4 billion gallons per year to 35 billion by 2017 -- is feasible.

On health care, Mr. Bush would cap the currently unlimited tax deduction for employer-sponsored health insurance; he'd replace that with a standard deduction -- $15,000 for a family policy -- available for all insurance, whether offered by employers or bought privately. This would improve progressivity and fairness, and help contain health-care costs. As written, the proposal has flaws, but those can be addressed -- if Democrats are willing to do more than hurl criticism.

"Our citizens don't much care which side of the aisle we sit on -- as long as we are willing to cross that aisle when there is work to be done," Mr. Bush said last night. He missed key opportunities to put forward areas for such cooperation -- and in the past six years, he's done much to persuade Democrats that they have little to gain from partnership. Nonetheless, in the new political order that will dominate the final two years of the Bush presidency, it may be in the Democrats' interest as well as the nation's to seek bipartisan accomplishment. On energy, health care, education and immigration, Mr. Bush last night offered at least a reasonable basis for further discussion. Congress should engage, not reflexively dismiss.

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