20 January 2004
When President Bush mounts the podium in the US Congress tonight to deliver this year's State of the Union address, it will be the last time that he formally accounts to American voters before they deliver their verdict on him at elections in November. Judiciously leaked hints suggest that he intends to focus on the war with Iraq, on his role as commander-in-chief and on his determination to make, and keep, America secure from enemy attack.
This is probably a wise course for the White House to take. The patriotic card has served Mr Bush exceptionally well since 11 September 2001, and it continues to do so. Despite the rising number of US casualties in Iraq and the accumulating evidence of how desperately the aftermath of the war has been mismanaged, Mr Bush continues to draw high ratings for his conduct of the war. This is an unfortunate fact of US politics, and one that neither we, as interested observers from across the Atlantic, still less his Democrat challengers, can afford to neglect.
Remove the patriotic card, however, and Mr Bush's hand looks, as indeed it should, utterly unwinnable. When Richard Gephardt, one of the less fancied contenders for the Democratic nomination, condemned Mr Bush recently as the worst of the five presidents he had served under, it was easy for the White House to ignore his remarks as mere internal Democrat positioning. Mr Bush's record in office, however, shows that Mr Gephardt may have been too complimentary. The facts and figures we present on our front page today support the conclusion that George W Bush may be not only the worst of America's last five presidents, but one of the worst, if not actually the worst, ever.
Mr Bush fails not only on our terms - according to what we would like to see in an American president - but in his own terms as well, as judged by the aspirations he expressed for the US during his election campaign.
The candidate who advertised himself as "a uniter not a divider" has failed to narrow any of his country's glaring social and racial divisions. The gaps are wider now than when he came to office. His stewardship of the mighty US economy has been disastrous. He has accomplished the stunning feat of transforming the record budget surplus bequeathed to him by Bill Clinton into a record deficit. The strong dollar has grown weak; the trade deficit has ballooned; unemployment is up. The only beneficiaries of what hardly deserves to be called an economic policy are his pals in the multi-millionaire class, which includes many in his Cabinet.
Mr Bush has failed to extend his "compassionate conservatism" much further than his immediate circle. He has attended no military funerals and has banned photographs of the coffins of dead soldiers returning home.
The divisions he has sown extend abroad. The US is more reviled than it has been since the Vietnam war. He has burnt many of America's longest-standing, most reliable bridges, including with Europe. The alliances that remain, with Britain, for example, have only shallow foundations in public opinion. On top of all this, Mr Bush has done nothing to reduce the standing of the US as the world's number one polluter; arrogantly shunning international efforts against global warming.
As Mr Bush embarks on his re-election campaign, it is this vast catalogue of failure that constitutes the true state of the Union. Four years ago, Bill Clinton reported to Congress, triumphantly, that the state of the Union was "stronger than it has ever been". No wonder his successor intends to trade on a war that a majority of Americans apparently still see as short, successful and, on balance, conducive to their safety.
The biggest challenge for the Democrats is to force Mr Bush to fight on his record, his whole record, not the laurel-wreathed warrior version. We must hope that whoever emerges from the primaries has the strength and conviction to unify the party and give American voters the choice they deserve.