George W. Bush strode into the Capitol for his State of the Union address the most popular President in modern history. He has said repeatedly that he will use the political capital gained in the war on terror, not let it go to waste. So what challenge did the President issue to the nation? What grand mission was laid before us? Emboldened by success in war, Bush had little to offer but war itself.

The money in the speech went to the Pentagon, a $48 billion increase that in itself is larger than any other nation’s entire military budget. Bush will launch the largest military buildup since Ronald Reagan. The passion in the speech was devoted to calling out–OK Corral style–Iran, Iraq and North Korea, preposterously puffed up into a “new axis of evil,” arming to threaten the peace of the world. Congress earlier gave the President a blank check to pursue those implicated in September 11 across the world. But the President is asserting the power to make war against “states like these” whether they were involved or not.

Beyond war and “homeland defense,” the remainder of the speech was Clintonesque–bite-sized proposals, poll driven and focus-group tested. Bush has erased the Democratic advantage on education and seems intent on doing so on the patients’ bill of rights, pension reform and prescription drugs. He labored to trump John McCain on national service. He mentioned Social Security privatization only in passing. That will be put aside until the Enron scandal is a dim memory and the 2002 election is behind us. The President’s jobs mantra–tax cuts, fast track and Big Oil energy plan–was shamelessly cynical. He presented his stimulus package as providing unemployment insurance and healthcare for those who have lost their jobs. In fact, it offers far less assistance than his father did during the last Bush recession. The bulk of the package features permanent tax cuts for corporations, cuts not linked to new investment or new jobs–a simple payback to his contributors.

But most notable was what was absent from the speech. George W. Bush is no Harry Truman; he issued no summons for a Marshall Plan to eliminate hunger and disease. The day before the address, in fact, the Administration torpedoed a European effort to get the industrial countries to double their development aid. The Bush people argued that impoverished countries must make themselves more attractive to foreign investors before any new funds are committed. Call it the Argentina plan.

Bush is also no Teddy Roosevelt; his perfunctory remarks about the need for standards made it clear that he will not lead the pitched battle needed to make the modern corporate behemoths accountable or to limit big money in politics. Although Jesse Jackson brought Enron workers to sit in the balcony for the President’s speech, neither Bush–nor the cowed national press–mentioned their presence.

The Democrats have supported Bush on the war thus far. But this nation would be well served if Congress summoned up the courage to hold independent hearings now on the Administration’s intentions and put constraints on its apparently growing taste for conflict. In any case, Democrats must challenge Bush’s phony stimulus and prescription drug plans and present clear alternatives of their own. And they should be leading the effort to clean up after Enron–protecting workers and small investors and enforcing corporate accountability. Democrats need to stop carping about deficits in a recession and start pushing to put people back to work. That would benefit the country and the party far more than their newfound stance as Coolidge fiscal conservatives.

Bush made his choice for our future clear. Now it’s up to Democrats to offer a real alternative and to have the backbone and energy needed to challenge a popular President who is headed in the wrong direction.