State of the Union 2006: Video Excerpts and Analysis
Topics: Cooperation | War on Terror | Iraq | Competitive Economy | Addicted to Oil | Hopeful Nation
Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2006
President Bush struck a strikingly muted, occasionally bipartisan and relatively non-polarizing tone in his sixth State of the Union address last night.
It was a speech in which the president offered few new program initiatives. Instead, he sought to downplay his disagreements with the American public and make amends with a Republican-controlled Congress that has distanced itself from a chief executive with weak poll numbers.
Trying to reignite the passion in his presidency, Bush also set out to quiet the partisan conflicts that in recent months have shown signs of potentially benefiting Democrats. Although Republicans rushed to grab his hand or kiss him on his way to and from the rostrum, his address received noticeably less intense and lengthy applause than in past years from the Republican side of the aisle in the House chamber, whose members would often rise up at the slightest provocation to shout and cheer while Democrats often sat silently. Instead, when Bush referred last night to the rejection of his plan to partially privatize Social Security, it was the Democrats who seized the moment to give him a standing ovation.
In a clear gesture to the Democrats in the room, and to those watching on television, Bush began by emphasizing the language of cooperation and moderation: (Click the screen below to watch an excerpt from the speech.)
The 51-minute address was not all conciliation. Bush's top political aide, Karl Rove, has already announced plans to turn the 2006 elections into a referendum on the willingness of Republicans and Democrats to hang tough in the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq. Last night, Bush sounded a theme sure to be repeated again and again as November approaches: (Click the next screen for the excerpt.)
In the above excerpt, the President drew the listener into his current logic for war in Iraq. The goal, in his view, is to prevent Osama bin Laden and his allies from turning Iraq into a base for assaults on the rest of the world. In effect, the goal of the war is to prevent Iraq from becoming a new Afghanistan for al Qaeda, defeating and humiliating the United States.
Bush omitted from his speech the finding of the September 11 Commission that there was no "collaborative relationship" between Iraq and al Qaeda before the U.S. attack - a finding that suggests Iraq has become a potential base of terror because of the war. Instead, Bush warned that any abandonment of the war now could only result in more danger, abroad and at home, and that radical Islamists will follow retreating American troops back to American shores.
The president also made no reference to the now-questioned grounds for the start of the war, but he did address calls by some Democratic members of Congress to withdraw American troops from Iraq. A withdrawal would be a retreat, he said, and "there is no honor in retreat."
In this next excerpt, Bush elliptically acknowledged that mistakes were made, but it took close listening to hear him. (Click the next screen.)
In the above video, he said "our coalition has learned," which sounded like a roundabout admission that the United States and its allies went into Iraq unprepared both for the problems of reconstruction and for the strength of opposing forces, although other interpretations are possible.
Bush also acknowledged that the administration has benefited from criticism voiced by Republicans and Democrats, but he did not give any specifics.
Bush moved quickly from those gestures to warn against "defeatism" and that "second guessing is not a strategy." From there, Bush shifted quickly back to his basic argument -- that withdrawal from Iraq would turn a key Middle East country to terrorists, resulting in death to our Iraqi allies and humiliating America as a nation that cuts and runs.
In fact, in Bush's view, no matter what "we feel about the decisions and debates of the past," the country has no choice but to stand and fight until victory is won in Iraq.
Public polling shows health care once again shooting up to the top of voters' priorities, and in the next excerpt Bush was playing catch-up after the failure of his Social Security initiative last year. (Click the next screen.)
Bush's Social Security proposal called for partial privatization, which sharply divided Republicans and Democrats. In addition, critics contended that his focus on Social Security avoided dealing with the more serious crisis emerging in heath care, especially in the financing of Medicare and Medicaid.
Last night, Bush shifted gears and called for the creation of a commission to deal with the combined issues of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Members of both parties would serve on this commission, which would seek "bipartisan answers."
There was no mention in the speech of the Bush-Republican vision of an "ownership society," in which citizens, with some help from the government, provide retirement and health care for themselves, breaking their ties to Democratic government programs.
When Bush turned to immigration, he was speaking to members of his own party. He has been struggling to retain liberal worker immigration policies in the face of Republican pressure in Congress for tough measures to close borders and build high fences.
This next speech excerpt was, from a traditional Republican point of view, dangerously Jimmy Carteresque. (Click the next screen.)
When Bush declared that "America is addicted to oil," he came close to doing what conservatives have accused liberals of doing for years: blaming America first.
The administration was very proud of the addiction line, promoting it in press briefings and highlighting it in early excepts released to the media. This suggests that Republican research has found the line effective with voters, outweighing any liabilities that result when a politician blames America for some national ill.
In fact, for an administration that has promoted tax incentives and legislation to boost petroleum production, Bush in his speech sounds almost like Al Gore. If someone had to guess in October 2000 who would deliver a State of the Union address that mentioned hydrogen-powered cars and fuels made from wood chips and switch grass, most people would have picked the then-Democratic nominee.
In a speech with very little in it for social conservatives, the final section (next excerpt) was an attempt to suggest that the country has been moving to the right in a slow but steady fashion. This shift, according to Bush, has resulted in declining welfare rolls, less drug usage, fewer illegitimate children and falling abortion rates. (Click the next screen.)
Bush made an indirect reference to courts that have ruled that gays have a right to marry - "activist courts that try to redefine marriage" - but his words were not the kind of campaign rhetoric designed to tap into the anger and fear of traditional-values voters.
Instead, the tenor of this part of Bush's speech suggested that the grounds for the anger and fear are diminishing and that the country has "become a more hopeful nation."
As the 2006 election gets closer, this kind of optimistic and relatively bland rhetoric will very likely disappear as pressure to boost turnout among Christian conservatives mounts.