Instant Analysis: State of the Union Address

Robert Kaiser
Associate Editor at The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 23, 2007; 10:00 PM

President Bush delivers his annual State of the Union address on Tuesday, Jan. 23 at 9 p.m., followed by a rebuttal by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.).

Robert Kaiser, Associate Editor at The Washington Post, followed the speeches, provided his reactions and answered your questions after the speeches concluded.

A transcript follows.


Robert Kaiser: Good evening -- if it is evening where you are. President Bush just finished delivering his speech; I am going to watch Sen. Jim Webb respond for the Democrats before starting this discussion in earnest. So I'll be back in a few minutes.


Robert Kaiser: New plan: I have been able to read Webb's interesting remarks, so can watch him out of the corner of my eye. We have a lot of good questions, so I'll start right in.


New Haven, Conn.: All week we were told the president was going to do this SOTU address differently, that it would be an acknowledgment of his tough political situation and not a laundry list of legislative initiatives. How exactly was this a different State of the Union? I am reminded of your comment last week about the President's seeming lack of a relationship with reality -- this speech could have happened in any year of his presidency.

Robert Kaiser: A good way to begin. This was a largely non-partisan SOTU speech, I thought. It was an attempt to change the subject by introducing any number of ideas that might make us think about something other than Iraq. Maybe it will have that effect. I doubt it. But it was a kinder, gentler Bush, didn't you think?


Roswell, N.M.: What about traveling to the moon and Mars? I thought that was a very important goal for this admin.

Robert Kaiser: That was a subject-changer in 2004, wasn't it? Gone.


Beaumont, Texas: Was it just me, or was that one of the quietest State of the Union speeches?

Robert Kaiser: Very quiet. The Republicans kept this event really loud for the past six years. Now they're quieter.


Victoria, B.C., Canada: When he mentions, in reference to the Iraq war, that we "went into this united," that struck me as a bit of revisionist history. As far as I remember, we entered said war against the wishes of the majority of the global community and an extremely large and vocal portion of the U.S. citizenry. We did so amid massive protests both at home and abroad. So why is a comment like that even worth making? It removes credibility from the rest of his statement regarding the war. Why idealize something in such a way?

Robert Kaiser: I agree with you. The administration now is trying to rewrite quite a lot of history. Thanks for posting.


Earmarks and Omissions: Thanks for taking questions, I always enjoy these forums. I was confused by the president's explanations of earmarks -- they are not in bills he signs? And yet have the effect of law -- can you please clarify this for me? And I was disappointed he did not even mention that New Orleans still is struggling so terribly to get back on its feet.

Robert Kaiser: This is not the place for a long explanation, but yes, earmarks can appear in "report language" that explains what the arcanely worded provisions of a bill are supposed to mean -- that is, who gets the money. And a lot of them, during the years of Republican control, were included in "conference reports" on bills passed in different versions by House and Senate. The earmarks could get into bills that neither house actually voted on. Those, however, Bush would have had to sign.


San Francisco: The transcript you have posted is the prepared text for the State of the Union speech. I hope someone at your newspaper is comparing the prepared text with what the President actually said. For example, in his recent speech about Iraq, the biggest difference was the President's addition of an explanation of the consequences of an American failure in Iraq. Those comments were not in his prepared text. The stated consequence is that Iraq would become a safe haven for terrorists (which is what Pakistan is today.)

Robert Kaiser: Good point. I actually saw no substantive departures, but I wasn't giving it rapt attention.


Omaha, Neb.: At 9:50 p.m., it looked like Speaker Pelosi flipped a page on a stapled document. Is it common for House leadership to receive a copy of the speech in advance? I suppose this would help in more-formal scheduling of the applause and standing ovations, but I found it odd. Then again, she may have been reading something else.

Robert Kaiser: Yes the members get the text in advance. So do we.


Washington I was just wondering what President Bush means when he says that he wants to increase troop numbers by 92,000 -- do we really have that many people who would be willing to join up?

Robert Kaiser: This would happen over five years, under his plan. I have no idea how many people would sign up. But there will be opposition to this idea from some in Congress, because it would be expensive.


Austin, Texas: Mr. Kaiser, thanks for doing these chats. I made up my mind about the administration years ago, but I'm trying to put myself in the position of someone who voted for Bush in 2004 but since has become unhappy. (Apparently there are a whole lot of people like that.) Did you see anything in the speech that is likely to help Bush regain the confidence of such a person?

Robert Kaiser: Seemed to me he was a lot more appealing a character tonight than he was last week with his Iraq speech, when he looked so uncomfortable. I think those who like him probably were reassured that the old Bush was back tonight.

But the big problem for the president is that the country has made up its mind about him. That's my take on all the polls, including ours this week. And the verdict is strongly negative. As many others have noted, Bush was the least popular president to give a State of the Union Address since Nixon in 1974.


Washington: Bush said tonight that the U.S. has a diplomatic strategy "that is rallying the world to join in the fight against extremism." The Post today published a story on a new poll of foreign nations showing the U.S. is amazingly unpopular around the world. What gives?

Robert Kaiser: Here's a link to that story. It's powerful. This passage of Bush's speech sounded dreamy to me. Regardless of what one thinks about Bush's foreign policy, the damage it has done to the U.S. image overseas is undeniable. We have become by far the most unpopular nation on earth, an uncomfortable, and relatively new, status.


Washington: Hi! Thanks for taking questions. My question is: In Bush's last speech, and in the prepared speech, there was no mention of God -- a big departure from his normal lexicon. What do you think brought about this change? Was it intentional? And is it meaningful?

Robert Kaiser: Interesting question. I missed this omission. I have no idea how to interpret it.


San Francisco: As a devout Liberal I hate to say it, but Bush spoke well, with a subdued, noncombative style. Gone was the smirk and the condescending tone. He almost seemed like any normal person. If he acted that way all the time I could almost (gulp) actually like and respect him.

Robert Kaiser: Thanks for posting.


Georgia: Mr. Kaiser, thanks for taking questions this late in the evening. As a health insurance agent for the past 20 years, I just can't understand the President's proposal for tax deductions. Insurance predominantly is governed by the state, not the federal government, which is why coverage varies from state to state. In my state, individual health insurance is not a guarantee issue product. You can be declined, wavered for a particular condition (meaning the very condition you may need coverage for is not covered for a period of 2-5 years), and all include a 12-month pre-existing condition clause if you are accepted. In my state, if you had cancer in the past 5 years, you automatically are declined for coverage. A tax credit of $1,000,000 would not be helpful. Yet I never read about this situation in any articles about health insurance. While I have not read the fine print, if the President wanted to be innovative, he'd look along the lines of the Massachusetts and California plans.

Robert Kaiser: I'm grateful for this good comment. I have a number of similar questions, all asking, essentially, what good is a tax deduction if you can't get insurance, or can't afford it? And the answer, sadly, is no good at all.

Our health care system seems awfully ripe for fundamental change to me. But in a few years I'll qualify for Medicare and be out of the medical woods. How fair is that?


Seattle: Dikembe Mutombo and Baby Einstein? Is this really what our President is choosing to focus his State of the Union address on?

Robert Kaiser: That was changing the subject. I liked Autrey the best. It was well done too, I thought.


Washington: Weren't you the Washington Post White House correspondent when Nixon was President? If you remember, how did this State of the Union compare to Nixon's when he was at the height of his troubles?

Robert Kaiser: In January 1974 I was The Post's correspondent in Moscow, and having a grand old time answering questions from Russians who wondered why The Washington Post was out to get Richard Nixon (whom they had decided they liked at that time). I confess I have no memory of that SOTU address, and would welcome a comment from anyone who does.


Richmond, Va.: President Bush boasted a significant decrease in the debt. Two questions: Does he count budget for the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan? Isn't he saying the deficit is half of what they predicted it would be? Thanks.

Robert Kaiser: The president's comments on the debt would not withstand careful scrutiny. Remember, this president inherited a healthy budget surplus, quickly did away with it, then ran up huge debts for our children and grandchildren to pay off. When politicians wonder why people hold them in a low regard, perhaps we all ought to remember to mention this fact. Lumbering unborn generations with the debts that this generation decides it can't pay is one unattractive trait, in my opinion. And this president has done just that with abandon for nearly all of this presidency.


Salt Lake City: Mr. Kaiser, thanks as always for doing this analysis chat. This SOTU seemed significantly shorter than I remembered (isn't it usually closer to 90 minutes?). If it was shorter, was there less text in President Bush's speech or just far fewer interruptions for extended ovations?

Robert Kaiser: Oy, you've got the power of extended memory! By which I mean, I don't think even Bill Clinton ever got to 90 minutes. Most of an hour is typical; this one got just over an hour.

There definitely were fewer extended ovations. And there was still lots of evidence of partisan divide in the number of occasions Republicans cheered and Dems remained silent.


Annandale, Va.: Bush talked about several domestic terrorist plots that were intercepted. I never heard of them. Are these new news, or have I not been reading the papers enough? Were these legitimate victories, or is Bush, again, distorting and exaggerating (will you still use this question if I say "lying")?

Robert Kaiser: Read the text in the morning and you'll see that they are either vague or old news (the L.A. plot).


San Francisco: The President started off right with his classy acknowledgment of Nancy Pelosi as the first female Speaker of the House, then immediately insulted the Democratic Party by referring to the "Democrat" majority. Typical Bush "bipartisanship."

Robert Kaiser: I noticed this too. I guess this is an in-group thing for "the base." It really is the Democratic Party, that is its name -- I don't think even a president has the power to re-name the opposition party, at least not officially. But he does have the freedom to call it what he wants to, obviously.


Nashville, Tenn.: In response to the question from British Columbia perhaps you could post a link to the excellent poll taken by the Washington Post's Richard Morin prior to the war. Washington Post-ABC News Poll -- Iraq (Post, Feb. 11, 2003)

Robert Kaiser: Great idea thanks.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: Based on earlier comments from the Administration as well as tonight's SOTU, I'm extremely nervous about the President's intentions toward Iran. What do you think? Also, I agree that Bush was trying to evoke his more compassionate side a la the 2000 campaign, but we all know how that's turned out. It's incumbent on all of us, pundits and citizens alike, not to buy into his rhetoric until we see actual policies that confirm his flowery promises.

Robert Kaiser: Thanks for posting. As I've said earlier, I think the prospect of a lot of people now "buying into" Bush is nil. The country now is aligned against Bush, and is most likely to remain so barring some remarkable development, like another big terrorist attack.

As to Iran, I don't know what to say, because I don't know what to think. I think I do know that a serious proposal from the White House to launch a war against Iran in the next two years would cause a strongly negative reaction in the Pentagon. As Sen. McCain now is saying, the Pentagon is very upset even with the proposed escalation in Iraq.

But Bush's view of the war has confirmed for me, sadly, that he lives in a world of his own. We had more of that tonight: "It is still within our power to shape the outcome of this battle," Bush said.

I don't think so. Indeed, as I wrote in the Outlook section a week ago Sunday, I think the great tragedy is that we probably never had it in our power "to shape the outcome of this battle." That was, and remains, a job for Iraqis, and as Bush said tonight, "the Iraqis are not yet ready..."

Here's a link to my article. There will not be a quiz tomorrow...

_______________________ Trapped by Hubris, Again (Post, Jan. 14)


Whitefish, Mont.: I thought Senator Webb far outshone the President and did it bluntly and with few words. Your take?

Robert Kaiser: Lots of comments about Webb tonight, mostly favorable, a few who thought he looked little wooden (as I did, though also earnest). But I was struck by the populist line of his speech,and the resolve of his comments on the war, which of course he has unusually good credentials to criticize. Webb is a fascinating addition to our public life.


Houston: Thank you for taking time to attend to these questions. Immigration: Will it happen this time? We had great expectations on this issue when "43" came in. Republican fear-mongering campaigns have engendered xenophobia at home and abroad. Do you see a bipartisan compromise on this issue?

Robert Kaiser: I think it's possible.


Olympia, Wash.: Is the President still relevant in an increasingly hostile political environment?

Robert Kaiser: Earlier this evening I sought out our wonderful White House correspondent, who covered Clinton, went to Moscow for most of Bush's first term and is now back at the White House again, to ask him when it was that Clinton famously had said "the president is still relevant," or close to that. April 1995, Peter remembered -- in other words, just a few months into the "Republican revolution" led by Newt Gingrich. Like Clinton then, Bush has been in effect rejected by the electorate. So your question is a legitimate and good one.

The big difference: Clinton had a chance to scramble back -- he ran for and won reelection in '96. Bush has no more chances. Only a turnaround in Iraq can save him now, I suspect. As indicated above, I am not holding my breath.


Forest, Va.: The President several times made mention that our continued military effort in Iraq was predicated upon the ability of the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to achieve certain conditions/benchmarks -- sort of implying that non-performance by al-Maliki might result in canceling the contract. What was your take on Bush's conditional statements that seemed, to me, to be directed at al-Maliki? Thank you.

Robert Kaiser: Such comments have come also from Secretary Gates, Secretary Rice, Gen. Petraeus and others in recent days. The problem with all of them, I think, is that they clearly are aimed more at American than Iraqi audiences. If there is a Plan B after al-Maliki, we haven't seen an inkling of it yet. So I'm not sure what the implied threat really is there.


Stafford, Va.: I can't see how Webb can say that we will not leave precipitously but in the next statement talk about a total withdrawal. This is a typical Democrat position that does not level with the American people. If they are for retreat, call it what it is.

Robert Kaiser: Thanks for the comment. This is of course the Democrats' dilemma. Ultimately someone may have to say okay, we lost, we're leaving. But no active-duty politician is saying that yet that I've heard. Dennis Kucinich maybe.


Washington: Thanks for answering questions. As a 27-year old, obviously I haven't been around for lots of past U.S. presidencies. Reading about the SOTU, and reading this chat, leaves me increasingly pessimistic about the future, particularly the near-future. What can be done to change our country's course, and more importantly, do our current politicians have the guts to do it? What can younger generations feel hopeful about right now?

Robert Kaiser: This is a lousy time. It is also, I think, a time of flux. The politics of a year ago seem like a distant memory; I think it easily could be possible to say that again a year from tonight, and two years from tonight. Personally I think we are coming to the end of an era that began with Reagan's election in 1980. I have no idea what's coming next, but I expect something new and different. Perhaps that's something to be hopeful about?

Americans have screwed up before. I was thinking this afternoon about Herbert Hoover; even I wasn't around for him, but he's an intriguing historical figure. He was considered one of the finest Americans of his age when he came to the White House in 1929 -- he had a brilliant record, was smart and likeable. When the depression struck he had no idea what to do, and so did very little. The country came to the edge of a precipice; Franklin D. Roosevelt yanked it back and a new era began.

Something like that may be happening now, though I do not predict a new New Deal. Republicans as well as Democrats could take us in new directions now. But I do think someone will.


Richmond, Va.: Comments such as yours here only support the position that "radio commentators" take about the "liberal news media." You clearly have decided the President's policies are finished. As a journalist, how do you defend your "opinions"?

Robert Kaiser: Thanks for posting this. I worried today about precisely this as I thought about tonight's chat. I don't do opinions; I have been writing news and analysis at The Post for four decades, but never wrote an editorial or had an opinion column. My judgments are based on my best analysis of what is happening, and I therefore try to support them with evidence. Obviously you think I've failed; I'm sorry about that.

But I do think it's best to face facts: The Iraq war has gone badly and the results of that will be grim. Our president is remarkably unpopular, and the bottom seems to have fallen out for him in recent weeks. We have run up huge debts for our grandchildren in the past six years. The world has turned against us. These are not, alas, opinions.


Washington: As I would expect, the analysis that you and I am sure your paper will provide on the president's address is slanted in a negative perspective. Is there anything positive that you can take away about the President's ideas laid out tonight?

Robert Kaiser: You bet -- indeed, I thought I'd done it already. This was a good speech by Bush. It was vastly more effective than his Iraq speech earlier in the month. The use of four "heroic" figures was very effective. A real national debate on health care options and energy options, which the president seemed to invite tonight, will be good for us.


Los Angeles: Would the address have been more effective in an Austrian accent? That's the way we get our addresses out here in the West.

Robert Kaiser: Vell it's hard to say. But on that note I vill say gut night.

Thanks to all for the many good questions and comments.


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