Final State

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

THE FINAL State of the Union address of a presidency always has an unavoidable undertone of wistfulness. No matter how convincingly the president pledges to work until the last hour of the last day, the end is already visible on the horizon; most of his achievements and failures have been etched for history's judgment. President Bush's speech last night was necessarily tailored to fit that reality: There were no major new initiatives. Still, the president's advisers said he had decided to offer a forward-looking program, not a reflective valedictory -- a wise choice, because an honest assessment of the past seven years would have been a tale of opportunities lost and enterprises bungled.

Mr. Bush understandably turned early in his address to the current economic turbulence and the stimulus package that he and Congress have been working on. The initiative allows both Republicans and Democrats to do to what they like best in an election year: hand out checks to voters. The president urged quick passage of the $150 billion plan that he and House leaders have agreed on, saying it would create half a million jobs this year. He warned that if the Senate were to load up the bill with more spending, "that would delay it or derail it," but he diplomatically stopped short of threatening a veto.

It's possible that the economic relief will be the only significant legislative achievement this year. Mr. Bush urged Congress to show "that Republicans and Democrats can compete for votes and cooperate for results at the same time." But it was hardly a sign of comity that he threatened to veto the temporary extension of a law authorizing surveillance of telephone calls and e-mails that the administration itself sought originally.

Mr. Bush announced a new initiative to crack down on congressional earmarks that would have more force had the president not signed, uncomplainingly, years of spending bills stuffed with ever-rising amounts of pork by a Republican-controlled Congress. He proposed a $300 million "Pell Grants for Kids" program to address the growing number of urban parochial and other private schools that are closing. This is school vouchers by another name, and its prospects in the Democratic-controlled Congress are dim. Much of his speech, similarly, was a wish list of measures that face an uphill battle, such as a strengthening of the No Child Left Behind law and trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, or that will have to be taken up by a future administration and Congress, such as entitlement and immigration reform.

Mr. Bush does have the opportunity to finish with a flourish in foreign affairs. Justifiably promoting the improvement in security in Iraq, he reiterated the administration's plan to "return on success," withdrawing troops this year while trying to preserve and extend the fragile stability that has been achieved. He also restated his hope to help Israelis and Palestinians reach a peace settlement by the end of the year. Curiously, however, the president did not mention North Korea -- though there, too, the administration has hoped to complete a landmark deal on disarmament in the coming months.

Mr. Bush endorsed the need for a new international agreement on climate change. But the greatest disappointment of the night was his failure to commit to working with Congress on legislation to create a mandatory carbon emissions reduction system in the United States -- without which no international accord will be possible. Like so much else, that, it seems, will have to wait for another president.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company