Union address that ran on empty

By Jacob Weisberg

Financial Times

Published: February 2 2006

Admittedly, the State of the Union address has become a tedious ritual. According to calcified habit, US presidents must begin by describing the country’s condition as “strong”, go on to point out the American “heroes” planted in the House gallery and flit lightly over dozens of disparate topics between pauses for theatrical applause. This year’s pandering nadir came during the brief passage on bioethics, when George W. Bush called for legislation banning the creation of “human-animal hybrids”. In Washington, there is a lobby for everything except, apparently, mermaids and centaurs.

At the same time, the State of the Union is a political occasion that can still matter a great deal. It remains a president’s grandest regular opportunity to tell the country what he wants to do and ask its support. For a leader who has become stuck, like Bill Clinton in 1999 following his impeachment vote, or Mr Bush in 2006, the speech affords the tantalising prospect of a fresh start. As long as he can propose a new agenda to a watching nation, no president is ever completely washed up.

Mr Bush faced special difficulties in making his bid for another chance this year. A strong president can appeal to the public over the heads of an antagonistic Congress. But Mr Bush’s unpopularity, coupled with the scandal running rife among his allies in the Republican House, means that he lacks the political capital for major new initiatives. This time last year, when he was stronger than he is now, Mr Bush proposed a radical restructuring of Social Security around private accounts. Because the idea fell flat, it left him weakened.

What is more, Mr Bush is as resource-constrained as any president in recent memory. The over-extension of our military would have made any “axis of evil”-style belligerence toward Iran or North Korea come across as an empty gesture. And, given the chasm Mr Bush has reopened in the budget, there is little appetite for additional tax cuts, which were the central economic initiatives of Mr Bush’s first three State of the Union addresses. Significant new spending is off the table for the same reason.

Thus Mr Bush’s only real alternative this time was to seek out areas for bipartisan co-operation. His chosen areas of emphasis – energy independence and “competitiveness” – were sound in principle. Both are broadly supported national goals, areas where it is possible to imagine conservatives and liberals joining together. Unfortunately, Mr Bush blew what may have been his last chance to create a second-term legacy beyond whatever happens in Iraq. The way he framed both issues suggests he lacks both the boldness and seriousness he needs to recover his legs.

Setting a broad goal of energy independence was the signature of Mr Bush’s speech. Declaring that “America is addicted to oil”, he proposed reducing the US importation of oil from the Middle East by 75 per cent over 20 years and making ethanol-burning cars economically viable within six years. For a former oilman who is often accused of favouring his old industry, these were at least arresting proclamations. Mobil and Halliburton are not the likely winners in a large-scale conversion to nuclear power and veggie gas.

But, as he dipped into specifics, the president revealed both the muddle of his thinking and a level of insincerity. Mr Bush indicated three goals – cheaper fuel, independence from Middle East crude and environmental improvement. Like most objectives, these involve choices, trade-offs and sacrifices, all of which the president seems incapable of acknowledging. Cheap fuel is good for the economy but bad for the environment. Expensive fuel is better for the planet but also good for the totalitarians in Saudi Arabia. Replacing Arab oil with democratic or domestic oil will have no effect whatsoever so long as overall consumption continues to rise. Conservation measures such as fuel-economy standards and dedicated taxes can plausibly serve all three of his objectives, but Mr Bush has a quasi-religious aversion to conservation and taxes, and did not so much as refer to either. Another missing term was global warming, or even the White House’s preferred euphemism of “climate change”. By continuing to pretend that this issue does not exist, Mr Bush deprives himself of perhaps his most powerful argument for kicking oil addiction.

Instead, he put his faith in technology, emphasising “cellulosic ethanol” that would use not just corn kernels, but husks and stalks as well. This is well-meaning fantasy. Ethanol has spent several decades as an agribusiness boondoggle of dubious environmental benefit; critics argue it takes more energy to produce a gallon of ethanol than the ethanol contains, and no one would use it were it not for massive subsidies. Brazil has had success with a more efficient type of ethanol made from sugar cane. But in a speech filled with denunciations of protectionism in the abstract, Mr Bush was silent about the 50-cent-a-gallon tariff that keeps Brazilian ethanol off the US market.

Mr Bush’s vague “competitiveness” agenda suffers from the same sort of wishful thinking and nibbling around the edges. The step that would most strengthen US companies in the global marketplace is relieving them of the burden of providing healthcare. A big departure of that kind does not come easily in the sixth year of any presidency. But if he keeps to the paths of least resistance, Mr Bush will sputter along for a few more years before running out of gas entirely.

The writer is editor of Slate.com