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Live Analysis: State of the Union address

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Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Editor
Monday, January 28, 2008; 10:00 PM

President Bush delivers his annual State of the Union address on Monday, Jan. 28, at 9 p.m. ET, followed by a rebuttal by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D-Kan.).

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Robert G. Kaiser, associate editor at The Washington Post, followed the speeches, and at 10 p.m. provided his reactions and answered your questions.

The transcript follows.

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Robert G. Kaiser: Good evening. This is one in quite a long string of chats after State of the Union Addresses. In the past they have provoked hundreds of readers comments and questions; tonight we barely have dozens so far. I'll start off responding to those we have. Please share your comments; we'll carry on here as long as there seems to be interest from out there in radioland -- or wherever it is you are tonight.

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Fayetteville, N.C.: In the past seven years, it does not seem that the policies have matched the rhetoric. To the contrary, it seems that we hear one thing in the State of the Union and then the policies offered by the president and enacted by the Congress (controlled by the same party until the most recent election) do not even attempt to accomplish the stated goals. Why should we believe anything we heard tonight?

Robert G. Kaiser: You're right of course. This is not a president with a long list of legislative accomplishments -- quite the contrary. Tonight you had the sense that he was reading a laundry list without much real hope that -- with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress -- any of it actually will happen. And little of it will.

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Olympia, Wash.: Why does President Bush think that more of the economic plan that put us in the recession and significantly has diminished America now will result in any improvement?

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't agree with your analysis. We're not yet in a recession -- or if we are, we don't yet "know" it, because the official definition of a recession is two successive quarters of negative growth; we haven't recorded one yet. And what "plan" are you referring to? I am not aware of one.

Otherwise, right on!

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Baltimore: What does he mean by "fully funding our troops"? Didn't he promise that before? Our men and women are coming home in a state that our medical institutions cannot handle. How can he say on one hand that X amount is going to Afghanistan but Y is going to be withdrawn from Iraq? How many people do we have? I feel like I am being misled!

Robert G. Kaiser: Well, what he means is, "pass the appropriation I have requested for the Pentagon, including 'full funding' of the war effort." But you ask a good question indeed. Lots of aspects of this enterprise are not being fully funded. The Army is depleting equipment at a scary rate, replacements are not being fully funded. Veterans' care has not been fully funded, as readers of The Post know well.

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Washington: Robert, I don't mean to sound flip, but where was the president when earmarks spiraled out of control under the Congressional Republican leadership? I can't think of anything more hypocritical than pointing out bad behavior under the opposition's leadership that you were happy to tolerate under your own party's.

Robert G. Kaiser: You don't sound flip to me. Republicans became masters of earmarking in the years they controlled Congress, passing thousands more earmarks, literally, than Democrats ever had before 1995. Even Bush has promoted many executive-branch earmarks. There is a good analysis of that phenomenon here. It's written by a partisan Democrat, Scott Lilly, former Democratic staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, but he has hard facts to make his point.

While we're on this theme, note Bush's comment tonight: "American families have to balance their budgets, and so should their government." This from a president who has run up gargantuan deficits -- with the support of Congress, mostly Republican-controlled -- through six years.

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New Haven, Conn.: Forgive my ignorance -- but why did none of the Democrats stand when the presidents spoke against earmarks? What is the flip side of this issue?

Robert G. Kaiser: We could go all night on this question. I cannot answer your question, except to note that the Democrats seemed comfortable in their seats throughout most of the speech tonight. For the Republicans to cheer on this point (see above) is just hypocrisy in my opinion.

The question is, what's an earmark really? Often it's in the eye of the beholder. The constitution gives Congress the power of the purse; members of Congress recommend specific ways to spend money, sometimes to benefit their own states or districts; some of these get enacted. Are they all bad? Do they all deserve an epithet like "earmark"?

The short answer is no. The long answer is complicated, and not an appropriate use of our time here tonight. But it's an interesting subject -- so interesting I'm writing a book about it, sort of.

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Minneapolis: The State of the Union takes me back to the infamous 2003 SOTU and the 16 words. Don't you think Michael Gerson, Bush's chief speechwriter at the time and now a columnist at The Post, owes the world an explanation -- an explanation he has never given -- of how those false words made their way into the most important speech given in any given year, anywhere on the face of the earth?

Robert G. Kaiser: Yes I do, though I'm not sure we know that Gerson was responsible, do we?

Which reminds me of another big mystery I'd love to resolve. If you remember Colin Powell's famous WMD speech to the U.N., the one that sounded so good and proved to be so utterly wrong, you may also remember that Powell refused to use the text sent over to him from the White House, instead insisting on rewriting it, top to bottom. Even so, it was riddled with errors.

But what did the original say, the White House draft? Wish we knew...

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Washington: Does the president normally sign autographs as he's leaving?

Robert G. Kaiser: Yes.

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Maumee, Ohio: What does the president have a reasonable expectation of actually getting through Congress? It was interesting the Democratic response to some of his comments, especially Pelosi.

Robert G. Kaiser: Not much. This will be a barren year legislatively, I expect. But there will be appropriations bills. Something will happen about No Child Left Behind. It won't add up to much altogether.

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San Clemente, Calif.: I don't know what I expected, but it was lame even by President Bush's low standards. A bunch of golden oldies, threadbare phrases from the past seven years. Nothing that anyone believes or even cares about now. What's up with that?

Robert G. Kaiser: We have a president who is out of public support (32 percent approval), out of ideas and out of gas. It is fascinating to me how difficult it is for politicians (and journalists too, to be fair) to say publicly what so many of them readily say among themselves now: this is a failed presidency, one of the most unsuccessful in American history probably. Republicans in Congress say this to each other, but tonight they jump up an applaud like cheerleaders for their team.

Several who have posted questions noted, as I did, the large number of verbal gaffes Bush made tonight -- little things, missed words, mispronunciations and such. It made you wonder about his own level of interest in the speech, somehow. He seemed to be making a big effort to look relaxed and confident, but then had these little stumbles. I'm no expert on such matters, but I found it interesting.

I also think it's quite remarkable how good he looks. I'm old enough to remember Lyndon Johnson at the end of his failed presidency; he looked awful (and died quite soon after leaving office.) Physically, Bush looks great, don't you think?

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washingtonpost.com: Here's a link to the text of President Bush's speech (as he delivered it).

Robert G. Kaiser: Washingtonpost.com has provided this helpful link.

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Washington: Not exactly a lot of big ideas, or even ideas really, so my question is, how do they decide the seating for this thing? Obama and Kennedy were next to one another. Clinton and Biden were seated together. John Warner and David Vitter -- there's an interesting duo. John Kerry was in a corner somewhere. Does somebody put people in certain places?

Robert G. Kaiser: No, the members seat themselves. The nonmembers -- cabinet, Supreme Court, generals and admirals, diplomats of foreign lands -- have assigned seats.

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Rochester, N.Y.: Why has Bush been reluctant to talk about what's going on with the credit markets that is causing this possible recession? Couldn't he make some attempt to explain what happened with the subprime markets and so on? Wouldn't it deflect some of the blame from him?

Robert G. Kaiser: Very good question. He has stayed far, far away from the substance of the financial crisis since August, really. So have members of Congress really. Why haven't we had congressional investigations into the subprime lending that led us into this mess? I don't know.

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Baltimore: Regardless if you are a Republican, independent or Democrat, 2008 is an incredible year to be an American. For the first time in a long time we are as close as we can get to "the United States of America." It is a dream come true. For the first time minorities are paying attention to politics and understanding the issues. I am an African/Native American female. As I watch the president recite a very well memorized speech, I hope that someone puts what the president is saying in terms that everyone can understand. In order to have a level playing ground, everyone has to understand what the powers that be are trying to achieve and how it effects individual Americans.

Today, many people made up their minds on who they want as president. I love Bill Clinton, but when Teddy tells you to shut up ... you do not ignore Teddy. Teddy today scolded Bill like he was a child who broke his favorite toy -- democracy and fairness. As normal mommy (Hillary) has to discipline the misbehaved child. Hilary, put a muzzle on your man. I went to bed last night still struggling over who I wanted to be president. I overslept this morning, but woke to a cold home because I don't want to pay the BGE bill, but warmed by the endorsements by Teddy and Caroline. They helped me make up my mind. Thank you, Teddy and Caroline.

I hope that those close to Clinton/Obama/Edwards remind them that they are only different in the ways they want to execute their plans. When I see them, for the first time we have a true dream team. I say to all who love this country as much as I do, to urge the three of them to get their act together. The joke around the water cooler is: "What do you get when you put Clinton, Edwards and Obama in office together? A government that looks like America and a powerful boardroom team that Donald Trump could not fire." I have spoken. Please share my message.

Robert G. Kaiser: This of course has nothing at all to do with the State of the Union, but it gives me the opportunity to commiserate with the president for a moment. Here he was giving his very last prime-time State of the Union address, usually by far the biggest story of the day, and he was upstaged totally by Teddy Kennedy. Life is not fair! Or so he must have felt.

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Washington: Was I dreaming, or did I hear the president actually say "nuclear", rather than "nucular"?

Robert G. Kaiser: I heard what you heard, but what was it exactly? I thought it was not quite the old version, but not quite the correct one either. We could both go back and listen to it again. ... Or not.

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Auckland, New Zealand: Do you see this SOTU as balanced so as not to benefit the perceived talents of one candidate or another in Florida, as the speech and primary fall so closely together? Or the does, for example, the necessity to talk of the economy benefit, say, Romney? Given the new era Bush has cast his tenure, and his glance at how history remembers him, do you think this truly is his last State of the Union or will a parting major speech late in his term be so very tempting? Surely he'll certainly wish for some profile among the contenders to replace him...

Robert G. Kaiser: I see none of that. He stayed far away from the Republican contest in this speech.

Yes, he may want to try this again before he leaves, but a speech 11 months from now likely would feel even less relevant than this one, which already has been overtaken by one of the most exciting presidential campaigns of my lifetime.

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"Permanent" tax cuts: Can you explain something to me? What does it mean to make tax cuts "permanent"? They are carved in stone and never can be changed? What does this mean? Thank you.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the good question. When the big Bush tax cuts were passed, the administration asked that they be "temporary" -- that is, that they expire at the end of next year, I think it is. This allowed them to avoid acknowledging how much lost revenue there would be in the "out years" -- some years from now -- as a result of the cuts. Was this intellectual honesty? You can decide.

When it was done, 2010 seemed like the distant future. Now it is upon us. So the tax cuts (unless enacted again without a drop-dead date, like last time) will expire. In fact, this is a break for the next president and next Congress in my opinion. Our tax system is a terrible mess and needs a real overhaul, probably. It will have to get one now.

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Alexandria, Va.: I was kind of disappointed that there was no oddball proposal like in years past -- steroids in baseball, mission to Mars, putting the First Lady in charge of combating gangs (or was it drugs)?

Robert G. Kaiser: Well, thanks for sharing your disappointment!

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Washington: What say you to the argument that a speech like this defies the conventions of daily journalism? That any ordinary person after watching it would turn to his or her spouse and say: "Gawd! What a horrible bore." He said nothing new and he said it poorly. But your morning paper will make it sound like he committed news.

Robert G. Kaiser: I would say you are on to something.

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Stewartstown, Pa.: I strongly disagree with your comment that Lyndon Johnson had a "failed presidency." Yes, Vietnam was a disaster, but in my opinion, Johnson was the greatest domestic president of the 20th century. He did more for civil rights than any president since Lincoln. Overall, I'd rank Johnson at least as a "near-great" president.

Robert G. Kaiser: Those of us who were in Vietnam and who can visit the Vietnam memorial on a regular basis here in Washington never will be able to embrace the idea of a great Johnson. It is a prejudice, for sure.

But I really had in mind his own perception then -- he saw himself as a failed president after he cried uncle and announced he wasn't running for re-election. That happened in April, 1968, as I recall; in other words, three months from now, comparably. Another sign of how crazy our electoral calendar has become.

Thanks for standing up for LBJ.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: What is wrong with press people on both sides of the aisle? I'm a former congressional staffer and theater performance major. Why do these communications directors allow their members and senators to wear purple (Stabenow and Pelosi), orange (Republican of unknown origin), and bright red (Hillary, what where you thinking -- you looked like Satan)? This is the biggest political theater event of the year. Where is the theatrical presence? Especially with all the Democrats' Hollywood connections.

Robert G. Kaiser: Yes, our members of Congress really can't focus on what's really important, can they?

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Sewickley, Pa: Since the president was inaugurated in 2001, the economy has produced just 4.47 million new private sector jobs. During the equivalent timeframe in the previous administration, the economy produced 18.72 million private sector jobs. At the same time, labor force participation increased, while in the Bush years labor force participation has declined. How can the Republicans continue to argue that all that's needed is more supply-side/low-tax/low-regulation economics? Who on the Democratic side is best positioned to refute these voodoo economics? Thanks as always for these chats!

Robert G. Kaiser: I post your statistics without checking them, so I hope they are right! You sound persuasive, and I know you are broadly on the money here. Moreover, working-class families' standard of living has declined in these seven years; only the well-to-do have done better.

Economic issues will help whomever the Democratic candidate is. I don't see that one or another of them is much better equipped to exploit them, do you?

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Washington: You going to be back for Florida tomorrow night? I've missed the late night chats during Iowa and New Hampshire, Bob.

Robert G. Kaiser: Hmm, should we tell your spouse? I was here both nights, after Iowa and New Hampshire. I'll be back Feb. 5, but not tomorrow night.

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Re: Powell's U.N. presentation: It would be great to know what the Office of the Vice President had wanted included in Powell's UN presentation (because it really was OVP that produced the stuff for Powell). There is a decent amount of detail in Karen DeYoung's biography of Powell, actually, though not the texts themselves. Worth noting that there were several texts prepared for Powell on WMD, on terrorism -- one of them done by John Hannah, currently Cheney's national security adviser, and another by Libby, his predecessor before he got indicted.

Robert G. Kaiser: Here's a wonderful washingtonpost.com reader who knows his/her stuff. Yes, I talked to Karen about this when she was working on the book, and she does have the fullest account, but not the documents, as you note. Thanks for the post.

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Richmond, Va.: Where can I find a list of the 150 wasteful programs that the president is proposing to reduce or eliminate?

Robert G. Kaiser: Keep you eye on the White House Web site. Bush said he would be telling us soon what they are.

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Fairfax, Va.: Kathleen Sebelius is an Obama supporter, right?

washingtonpost.com: Sebelius Plans To Endorse Obama (theatlantic.com, Jan. 27)

Robert G. Kaiser: Here's a rumor to that effect. I don't think we've confirmed it yet.

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St. Petersburg, Fla.: Props to the president for the comment about No Child Left Behind: "No one can deny its results." I suppose that applies to those who think NCLB was the best thing since sliced bread -- and also those who think it was the worst thing since, um, yellow mustard?

Robert G. Kaiser: Can't argue with you.

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Washington: Social Security got a mention in tonight's speech, and Bush said that he had proposed solutions and now was calling upon Congress to put forward their ideas. Correct me if I am wrong, but I don't think he ever actually made his proposals to Congress. He sort of hinted around that "Social Security is in Crisis" and called on Congress to save it. Is this just another case of Bush wanting to bamboozle the American public? I know that he thinks the Treasury bonds in the Social Security Trust Fund are "just pieces of paper in a file cabinet," but aren't they backed by the full faith and credit of the United States?

Robert G. Kaiser: You are right on all counts, as far as I know. The bonds are real bonds, and our good faith depends on redeeming them. And Bush did avoid ever making a specific reform proposal of his own.

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Washington: I actually think the first half of the speech was pretty strong and included some accomplishments that a lot of the public supports and that he got things through Congress that Bill Clinton never could -- especially the CAFE standard increase. I think Democrats don't realize the opportunity they've missed by not embracing the president's immigration reform proposals. Remember, only Nixon can go to China. GOP members will be even more lockstep against such a comprehensive proposal if a Democratic president tried to offer one, which I doubt he or she would.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this.

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Bloomington, Ind.: Did he just say "repederedly"?

Robert G. Kaiser: Evidentially. Perhaps.

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Seattle: Did you think Bush's position on permanent tax cuts for the ultra-rich and an unending foreign war in Iraq helped contribute to his continually worsening poll numbers, or have all the voters in America just tuned him out?

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't think voters have tuned him out; I do think most Americans have given up on him. His approval ratings barely have budged in many months. Our reporting and polling show that Americans despair of the current situation. Three-quarters of us think the country is off on the wrong track -- quite an amazing number.

I think the war destroyed Bush.

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washingtonpost.com: Here's a link to Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius's Democratic response to President Bush's final State of the Union Address.

Robert G. Kaiser: Washingtonpost.com again helps us keep up! I missed this myself.

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Washington: Obviously LBJ had some high profile failures -- Vietnam, government's inability to combat poverty -- but I wanted to note that Wikipedia takes an average of presidential rankings from a variety of polls, and it puts LBJ right above Ronald Reagan, for what it's worth!

washingtonpost.com: Historical rankings of United States Presidents (Wikipedia)

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Arlington, Va.: Too young to remember -- such a wide demographic here at washingtonpost.com chats! -- but how would you compare this to President Clinton's last State of the Union address?

Robert G. Kaiser: I'm sure I watched that speech -- I may well have led a discussion here about it. I remember zip, nada, nothing about it.

This may of course be because I am getting too old to remember. Or -- I am flattering myself now -- it was not a memorable speech.

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Reston, Va.: Didn't watch the speech, but reading your chat doesn't make me feel anything but depressed. It's bad for a country when a presidency limps to the finish like this, isn't it? It's the one and only saving grace of the interminable primary calendar -- we get to look forward at a time when looking backwards just saps our collective energy.

Robert G. Kaiser: I think you are right. Of course it's sad for the country when the the government or the president fails. Sad, and bad too.

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Auckland, New Zealand: When is duck season? When do the Republican candidates feel safe to criticize Bush with both barrels? Or do you think they silently will ignore him, or damn him with faint praise? Also, would you go hunting with Dick Cheney? Would it be worth the risk for some off-the-record insights?

Robert G. Kaiser: I'd love to go hunting with Cheney. But I'm not holding my breath. I'm not even learning how to hunt!

Your question is a good one. Republicans running next November who have serious opponents -- for president, Senate or House -- will not, in my estimation, be defending Bush. But will they be openly criticizing him? Will they be able to win if they are not? Stay tuned.

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Robert G. Kaiser: Good night and thanks for dropping by. I'll return on Feb. 5, a big night in American history maybe. And maybe not -- these races may continue much longer than we ever expected.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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