President Bush will use tonight’s State of the Union address to make what White House Press Secretary Tony Snow refers to as “bold proposals” designed to appeal to Democrats.
In one of the more remarkable admissions ever by a presidential spokesman regarding the surreal nature of the administration in which he serves, Snow suggested that Bush’s speech would be a departure from past State of the Union remarks in that it would “reflect a little bit of the political reality.”
Reality is good. And it makes sense for Bush to reach out to Democrats as, for the first time since he assumed the presidency in 2001, the Republican chief executive will be addressing a Congress that is completely controlled by members of the opposition party. But Bush’s ridiculously doctrinaire proposals to send more US troops into the Iraq quagmire, undermine the health benefits of unionized workers and renew his exceptionally unpopular and ineffectual No Child Left Behind education initiative are unlikely to resonate with even the most conservative Democrats.
In fact, the key player in Congress on health care issues, Congressman Pete Stark, the California Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee’s health subcommittee, has said that Bush’s proposal to tax existing health benefits is so ludicrous that it is unlikely to be seriously considered by Congress. “The president’s so-called health care proposal won’t help the uninsured, most of whom have limited incomes and are already in low tax brackets,” explains Stark. “But it will hurt middle-income Americans, whose employers will shift even more cost and risk to their employees.”
Even more significantly, the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, Louisiana Congressman Jim McCrery, says he’s hearing complaints from conservative members of his caucus who object to Bush’s health plan not because it will undermine existing benefits but because it represents a tax increase.
Bush should take the report from McCrery seriously.
Instead of pitching his remarks to Democrats, who would be fools to sign on with the sinking-ship presidency of the one of the most unpopular presidents in American political history, Bush ought to be worrying about keeping his fellow Republicans on board.
This is no small matter for the President.
It is no secret that Bush delivers this State of the Union address not as the bold warrior president of 2003 and 2004 but as the lamest of lame ducks. A new CBS News poll has the President’s approval rating at a career low of 28 percent. That’s 14 points below where he was at before he delivered his State of the Union speech a year ago. The President appears to be in a freefall. In November, he had a 34 percent approval rating. In December, it was 31 percent. In early January, it was 30 percent. Now, for the first time, it’s in the twenties. And, historically, State of the Union addresses chip a half point or more off an incumbent president’s approval rating–after last year’s address, Bush went down two points.
What is most striking in the poll numbers is not the top line, however. It is the breakouts by party identification. A staggering 90 percent of self-identified Democrats disapprove of Bush’s presidency, while 64 percent of independents place themselves in that column. They are joined by 29 percent of Republicans.
The CBS numbers are the the worst for Bush in the latest round of surveys. Newsweek has him at a 31 percent overal approval rating. ABC News has him at 33 percent.
But the dramatic levels of Republican disapproval are consistent throughout the polls, with surveys showing that between one-quarter and one-third of the President’s partisans have turned against him.
That turn is reflected in Congress, where the administration faces a Republican revolt on Iraq not just by longtime critics of the war such as Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel but from Virginia Senator John Warner, the ranking Republican on the Armed Servives Committee. Another one-time Bush supporter, North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones, is leading a push in the House to tell the president that the administration cannot move against Iran without Congressional approval. Bush’s remarks tonight are unlikely to bring Republicans who have left his camp back under the big tent, and he runs the very real risk of causing more GOP members of the Senate and House — particularly those facing difficult reelection races in 2008–to sign on for anti-surge resolutions like the one Warner is promoting.
On the domestic front, fiscal conservatives who have long grumbled about the president’s spending policies are unlikely to be satisfied by an expected State of the Union address promise to balance the budget by 2O12–three years after Bush leaves the White House. In combination with the likely rejection of his health-case related tax hikes, Bush’s cavalier approach to budget matters runs the risk of turning true conservatives against him.
That’s the most serious threat to the president tonight.
There is no way Bush is going to win over Democrats with the sort of State of the Union address that seems to be in the offering.
But it is a real possibility that he will turn even more Republicans into critics of the administration.
John Nichols’ new book, The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at
The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at