THE DOMESTIC sections of the State of the Union address were aimed as much at deflecting action as at encouraging it. The president paid lip service to the agendas of both right and left -- everything from empowerment to infrastructure and a national energy policy -- but committed himself to very little.
In part that is a reflection of circumstance, but in part it bespeaks temperament and choice as well. The country is both at war and in a recession, and to the extent that officials adhere as they should to last year's budget agreement, the government has no extra money. But the president also gives the impression of being largely content with the domestic scene he surveys. He lists no urgent agenda of his own nor seems to think the public has one, and as to the public -- a political judgment -- he may be right.
The true-believing wing of his party wanted Mr. Bush to give a Reaganesque address: minimize taxes and government, and let America soar. There was a little of that: a bow toward growth, another toward tax cuts as the likeliest engine, references to such standbys as enterprise zones, tenant ownership of public housing and the "power to choose," presumably as in choosing your child's school. But the president, having said he continues to favor a capital gains tax cut, suggested a study of the likely revenue effect; that would put the issue off. The budget agreement precludes most other tax cuts. He likewise set no goals on the path to empowerment, in which conservatives put so much store; these will be mostly demonstration projects. Like every recent Republican president, he said he would propose his own New Federalism; he would combine $15 billion a year in domestic programs into lump-sum grants to the states. But the programs remain to be specified, and he would only suggest a longer list from which Congress could choose.
The president repeated his last year's position on the civil rights bill -- against both unfair discrimination and unfair preferences; said the attorney general would soon convene a "crime summit"; said his health care program would stress prevention; promised the "comprehensive national energy strategy" on which his aides have been unable to agree for 18 months; said the budget would both be constrained and promote "investment in . . . children, education, infrastructure, space and high technology"; and even took a preemptive position on campaign finance reform. He continues to favor abolishing PACs, but not imposing spending limits or providing for partial public financing.
It's a modest, in many respects defensive, agenda on the part of a president whose preoccupations are abroad, who inherited a large social deficit as well as budget deficit from the prior administration of which he was a part and who doesn't want at this moment to offend.