The day after Democrats begin the process of selecting George W. Bush’s challenger in what could be the most critical election of our time, the President will use his bully pulpit to present his well-spun version of the truth about America’s political and economic health. The scheduling of Bush’s fourth State of the Union address for the night after the Iowa caucuses serves as a reminder that every time a President addresses the nation in an election year, it’s a campaign speech. The one safe bet is that the “facts” Bush presents this year will bear as little resemblance to reality as his assertion in last year’s speech that “Year after year, Saddam Hussein has gone to elaborate lengths, spent enormous sums, taken great risks to build and keep weapons of mass destruction.”

Even as the death toll and the chaos in Iraq continue, so has the evidence that Bush’s statement was not only untrue but known to be untrue. Its intended purpose, it appears now, was to justify an invasion that had nothing to do with pursuing the terrorists behind the 9/11 attacks. Former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill told Time magazine, “In the 23 months I was there, I never saw anything that I would characterize as evidence of weapons of mass destruction.” Yet, he noted, plans for ousting Saddam were well under way by early 2001. Ron Suskind, author of The Price of Loyalty, written with O’Neill’s cooperation, described to CBS a Pentagon memo from early 2001 that outlined areas of oil exploration in post-Saddam Iraq. “It talks about contractors around the world from…thirty, forty countries and which ones have what intentions…on oil in Iraq,” Suskind said.

Elsewhere, a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace study has concluded that “Administration officials systematically misrepresented the threat” posed by Iraq, and US Army War College academic Jeffrey Record wrote that the invasion of Iraq was “an unnecessary war of choice” that has “created a new front in the Middle East for Islamic terrorism and diverted attention and resources away from the security of the American homeland.”

Bush is certain to be even less truthful when he starts talking about the economy. Last year at this time he was proposing further tax cuts, claiming that “jobs are created when the economy grows; the economy grows when Americans have more money to spend and invest.” Now, however, with more than 3 million jobs lost since he came to office (see Robert L. Borosage, page 7), we know, thanks to O’Neill, that the Administration sought a new round of tax cuts not because they made sound economic sense but because, as Vice President Cheney said, “We won the midterms. This is our due.” As for Bush’s contributions on this and other matters, O’Neill describes Bush as so disengaged in Cabinet meetings that he “was like a blind man in a roomful of deaf people.”

Unwittingly, O’Neill and Record have pinpointed the fundamental challenge for Democrats this year. The party’s presidential nominee must not only note Bush’s missteps but argue persuasively–and with passion–that Bush’s fascination with pre-emptive war and tax cuts for the rich, and his lack of interest in job creation, healthcare reform and a real education agenda, have damaged the physical and economic security of America. Howard Dean gained front-runner status by saying as much, and other Democrats have begun to pick up the theme. Now, Democratic voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and beyond should keep an eye out for the candidate who best articulates a critique of the Bush presidency that will do what Paul O’Neill says is vital: To “cause people to stop and think about the current state of our political process and raise our expectations for what is possible.”