FRED WOLFERMAN: The Real State Of Our Union
"The President shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient," says Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution.
I'm sure it seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, that was before there were a dozen television networks and thousands of nitwit bloggers to do it for him. There weren't even very many columnists.
These days, the State of the Union address is all about rituals and not-too-subtle signals: applaud, shake hands, nod, applaud, stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight. Congress has already been told what the president will say. The opposition party has even drafted a response to follow his speech. (There's nothing in Article II about a response.)
It took a long time for the State of the Union address to reach this point. After George Washington delivered his speech in person, it was 112 years before anyone did it again. Presidents just sent it over with the butler, on his way to buy groceries. Then Woodrow Wilson, pedagogue that he was, decided to go and talk.
It's been downhill ever since. Now, if you catch the commentary before and after the speech, you don't have to listen to it at all, though it is a lot of fun watching Congress perform.
The president's primary objective today is to drag public opinion into his court, and Congress' is to let it be known how easy or difficult that will be.
In this regard, the president had a tough night on Tuesday, but, like everything else about this speech, we already knew that.
His opening remark, successfully calculated to get everybody standing and clapping, was that the federal government should balance the budget within five years. Thereafter, during the course of his speech, he suggested the following, in the order proposed (I took notes, but may have missed something):
Increase funding for special education; provide health-care coverage for the elderly, the disabled and children; provide a standard deduction for health care; provide state grants for same; increase health savings accounts; fund association health plans; double the border patrol and buy it lots of new electronic gadgets; encourage [subsidize] alternative energy sources; increase the military by 92,000 troops, plus equipment; fight AIDS and malaria in Africa; and, oh yes, fund that Iraq thing.
Each of these got at least some members of Congress clapping, but never all at once. Congresspersons could simplify this ritual for themselves if they all just clapped with one hand every time.
A lot of this laundry list was designed to get Democrats to the table on some of their pet domestic issues so they would be a little less critical of the war in Iraq. It isn't going to work, but it was a nice try.
The president also offered a couple of ways to save our tax dollars: reduce earmarks by half (half?) and fix entitlements. Ho hum.
He also proposed some long-overdue ideas on fuel and mileage regulation and gave Congress a not-very-subtle boot toward filling vacancies on the federal bench.
I thought the speech was well delivered by a president trying desperately to dig himself out of a very deep hole. He may have found a handhold, but he will be hard pressed to keep it.
George Bush has certainly not gotten the presidency he bargained for. Many of his ideas on domestic issues have been good, and he at least attempted to open much-needed debate on tax reform, entitlement reform and immigration. He has even come to recognize that energy and health care have got to be dealt with.
First he was hamstrung by arrogant Republicans, now by arrogant Democrats. And, since seven months into his first term, terrorism has overshadowed everything. He has become the lamest of ducks.
It is too bad, because we cannot afford much more dithering over our domestic problems, even as the war continues.
The president has extended some olive branches toward Democrats, who will nevertheless demand the whole tree, at the expense of alienating many Republicans. Only some dramatic, and very quick, turnaround in Iraq can boost his popularity to the point that he can push his ideas effectively. The odds don't look good.
The Democrats smell blood, and all they are after is power in 2008. The Republicans are looking the other way, unwilling to support their president for fear of leaving office with him. Whatever the speechwriters conjured up the other night, that is the real state of the union.
Fred Wolferman lives in Southern Pines. Contact him by e-mail at fwolferman@
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