Senator John McCain, busy pressing his campaign in Florida, didn’t bother to show up. The Wall Street Journal reported the speech on page 3. The New York Times relegated the full text to its website. TV chatter focused more on Senator Edward Kennedy’s stirring Camelot embrace of Barack Obama earlier that day than George W. Bush’s proposals in what was, blessedly, his last State of the Union address. What happens when a President gives a State of the Union speech and nobody listens?
But we must pay attention to the damage Bush has wrought. As he delivered his seventh State of the Union, we’re mired in two bloody and endless occupations; our economy is cratering; dangers facing the world–from global warming to economic instability to terrorism–are much worse than they were seven years ago. America is more indebted, more isolated and more unequal. Our economy is weaker, our military is near broken, our people are divided.
Instead of forthrightly facing these problems Bush, unsurprisingly, resorted to duck and cover. “From expanding opportunity to protecting our country, we’ve made good progress,” he averred. “Yet we have unfinished business.” We can “be confident about our economic growth” in the long run, he said, despite the current “period of uncertainty.”
To deal with that uncertainty, the President called for rapid passage of the $146 billion bipartisan “growth package,” from which he has axed the most effective immediate stimulus measures, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office: bolstering food stamps and unemployment insurance. He has also refused to send aid to states to curb budget shortfalls and avert layoffs, and has ignored a longer-term stimulus and a pressing need in its own right: investment in our dangerously crumbling infrastructure. Other than this mild package (smaller, it should be noted, than this year’s projected spending on the Iraq War), Bush asks only for more of the same: making his tax cuts for the wealthy permanent, passing more corporate trade accords and the old grab bag of domestic reforms with which even he could barely conceal his boredom.
Bush focused much of his speech on his disastrous wars. Here the denial is complete. In Afghanistan, “twenty-five NATO allies and fifteen partner nations” are building a “young democracy,” he claimed. “These successes” and US allies are so strong that the President is rushing 3,200 marines to that narco-country in response to the urgent pleas of generals alarmed about the growing strength of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
We were told that the surge in Iraq has “achieved results few of us could have imagined just one year ago.” The results are so unimaginable, we can expect “tough fighting ahead,” and we can’t remove our troops until a “free Iraq” is able to defend itself, a chimera that Iraq’s defense minister suggests won’t happen until at least 2018–another ten years, $3 trillion and tens of thousands of casualties later.
Pack up the tents; the show is over. The country is ready for Bush to go. Yet Bush’s failures are not idiosyncratic. They are the direct expression of the right-wing Republican ideology and policies he systematically pursued. GOP presidential candidates ritually invoke Reagan, not Bush, but they are wedded to Bush’s program. They will run on continuing his wars, enshrining his tax cuts, touting his trade agenda. Both candidates for the Democratic nomination know we can no longer travel this road. This fall, the country will have a clear choice: keeping to Bush’s catastrophic agenda or ending thirty years of conservative dominance and charting a fresh course.