Few presidents in the history of the United States have been given the opportunity handed George W. Bush to lead the nation to higher ground.
No president, with the possible exception of the current chief executive's father, has ever blown so great an opportunity so completely.
Maintaining an approval rating that "popular" presidents such as Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton would have gladly traded a vice president to register, Bush could have used last week's State of the Union address to turn a moment of rare national unity and resolve into the stuff of greatness.
The president could have announced that the U.S. would not merely lead an ill-defined war on terrorism but also a dramatic war on want at home and abroad -- declaring that the success of food drops over Afghanistan had inspired him to forge an international coalition to provide food to every starving region on the planet.
The president could have recognized the reality that disease poses the deadliest threat to humanity and accepted a challenge from Pennsylvania Republican U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter to dedicate an additional $1 billion in U.S. funding to the Global Fund to fight AIDS. He could have gone a step further and endorsed the call by the Health GAP Coalition for a commitment of $2.5 billion to fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria -- with its wise focus on filling the funding gap for programs that treat people with HIV in impoverished nations.
The president could have acknowledged the basic economic truth that, with the dramatic increases in military spending he is proposing, it will be impossible to keep the vague promises his speech featured in regard to job creation, extension of health care coverage for the newly unemployed, pension protections, cleaning up the environment, implementing a patients bill of rights, providing affordable prescription drug coverage for the elderly, raising home ownership rates, training more teachers and expansion of early childhood development programs.
The president could have admitted that, in a time of economic stagnation, a farm crisis and rapid deindustrialization, it no longer makes sense to restructure tax policies in order to provide massive tax cuts for the wealthiest 7/10ths of one percent of Americans or to rebate 15 years of tax payments to the nation's largest corporations. By simply announcing that the U.S. would maintain the tax rates that were in place when the country's economy was growing rapidly in the late 1990s, Bush could have freed up more than $500 billion for investment in rebuilding America's crumbling infrastructure and schools -- along the lines of a plan proposed by U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., to create jobs and more stable communities.
There is so much the president could have done with all his polling popularity.
Instead, he squandered it -- much as his father did the 91 percent approval rating he achieved in the Gulf War year of 1991. Indeed, Bush the Junior borrowed a page from his father to suggest that the American people ought to take responsibility for keeping presidential promises. The Bush of the moment devoted much of his State of the Union's address's scant domestic-policy section to promoting a variation on Dad's old "thousand-points-of-light" scheme. Young Bush is now busy touring the nation to sell this new vision of volunteerism as the cure for what ails America.
Let's be clear: There is nothing wrong with volunteerism. It has long been the favored activity of those "do-gooder liberals" Bush backers such as Rush Limbaugh routinely savage.
But the most ardent proponents of volunteerism will tell you that a few hours of community service should never be seen as an alternative to the serious commitment that is needed from the federal government to address the problems that plague American communities -- let alone the world.
"One hopes the president doesn't think (America's) needs will easily be met by his call for two years or 4,000 hours of volunteer service from every American. Having called for such commitment all my life, I don't believe the problems in neighborhoods (that are impoverished) will ever be solved without a massive political and societal commitment to match citizen action," explains Jim Wallis, author of books such as "Faith Works" and "The Soul of Politics," and a man whose "Call to Renewal" activism on behalf of increased citizen involvement in problem solving is so well regarded that Bush aides have sought his advice on such matters.
"When it comes to terrorism, America pledges its full commitment to whatever resources it takes, but when it comes to poverty, America calls for volunteerism," argues a disappointed Wallis. "The president says we will ‘act at home with the same purpose and resolve we have shown overseas.' That promise remains unfulfilled. I was especially disappointed that President Bush called for welfare reform that replaces ‘dependency on government' with the ‘dignity of a job' without an expressed commitment to make work really work for the millions of people who are now off the welfare roles and working, but remain in poverty."
While most television commentators remain ridiculously enthusiastic about Bush's State of the Union speech, the editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine offers a more sober -- and sobering take.
"I really like presidential talk about values, and we saw some fine language (in the State of the Union address) about turning away from the ethic of ‘if it feels good, do it,' and moving from ‘the goods we can accumulate' to ‘the good we can do.' I particularly liked the call for a ‘culture of responsibility' that ‘serves goals larger than self.' We indeed must ‘change our culture,'" notes Wallis. "But values have to be implemented to have any value. And a country dominated by a commitment to endless war abroad and volunteerism at home will fall far short of the best values expressed (by George W. Bush)."