Congressional pages react to Bush speech Congressional pages during Bush speech

State of the Union

Pretty words, ugly truths

George W Bush delivered his State of the Union report to Congress and the American people last night. The formalities were all there, including the ritualistic applause, but this time it was a more sober and sceptical audience than W has ever faced before.

I feel it is my civic duty to at least listen to the State of the Union speech, even though I know it will ruin my digestion and make me disgruntled. The Constitution says the president "shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union" (Article II, Section 3), it doesn't say he has to give a speech and it certainly doesn't suggest turning it into spinning season.

W delivers written SOTU to Pelosi W delivers his written SOTU speech to Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House (D-CA)

For the first time in US history, the two people seated behind the president were not both old white guys, and Bush made a graceful reference to this to open his remarks: "And tonight, I have a high privilege and distinct honor of my own -- as the first President to begin the State of the Union message with these words: Madame Speaker."

The formal delivery of the written speech to the presiding officers, Pelosi and Vice President Dick Cheney, serves to illustrate the contrast between couth and uncouth. Pelosi, knowing that a handshake will accompany the handover of the document, extends her left hand to receive the document, leaving her right hand free for the handshake, as etiquette requires. Bush, on the other hand, is oblivious to or ignores this convention. Miss Manners would not approve.

Bush began by singing a psalm from the hymnal of bipartisanism:

Our citizens don't much care which side of the aisle we sit on -- as long as we're willing to cross that aisle when there is work to be done. (Applause.) Our job is to make life better for our fellow Americans, and to help them to build a future of hope and opportunity -- and this is the business before us tonight.

This is a decidedly late conversion for The Uniter who has spent the past six years being The Divider. Unfortunately for W, one of the first items of business that the Congress will cross the aisle to get done is a resolution against Bush's plan to escalate the war in Iraq by adding more troops, contrary to the will of the people expressed in polls and the last election.

For the most part, Bush's attempt to restart his domestic agenda consisted of warmed-over, vague bromides. It was a blatant attempt to change the subject from the war in Iraq.

Cheney Pelosi Bush

I was rather taken aback by Pelosi's jack-in-the-box performance, quite often first to her feet to applaud some line of the speech. Then I realized how shrewd she was being: Bush's speeches always contain language that sounds laudible until he puts his particular spin on them; Pelosi was jumping up to endorse the supportable ideas before Bush could get in his white-is-black-black-is-white follow-up. A nice dance: he gets to sound good, she gets to look cooperative, not obstructionist.

For example:

First, we must balance the federal budget. (Applause.)

Who isn't in favor of balancing the budget? But by beating Cheney to the jump, Pelosi gets to endorse the goal and be able to sit down again before Bush gets to the inevitable talk about restraining spending, because everyone knows his way of doing this is to cut programs that help people instead of big business.

What we need to do is impose spending discipline in Washington, D.C. We set a goal of cutting the deficit in half by 2009, and met that goal three years ahead of schedule. (Applause.) Now let us take the next step. In the coming weeks, I will submit a budget that eliminates the federal deficit within the next five years. (Applause.) I ask you to make the same commitment. Together, we can restrain the spending appetite of the federal government, and we can balance the federal budget.

W did not veto a single spending bill in six years while the Republican-controlled Congress emptied the treasury and ran up debt, so he is hardly one to talk of fiscal prudence. Except that what he means is to be prudent in safeguarding the advantages of the haves while screwing the have-nots and the trying-to-haves.

And so it goes: The ugly truth is that the problems W called upon Congress to help solve are ones that W has himself created or exacerbated or ignored. Oil dependence? What W gave us was a secretly developed energy policy that turns out to be a sweetheart deal for the oil companies and that includes not one step with teeth that would help stem the use of oil and gasoline. Social security? W wasted a precious year flogging his plan to privatise social security, a plan that was transparently intended to shift the risk and responsibility onto individuals rather than share it among us all. A "fair, impartial system of justice"? W is the one who has been trying appoint ideological judges and trample our civil rights.

Pelosi and Bush

No doubt some will have paid attention only to the applause line about balancing the budget and forget that W and his GOP Congressional accomplices are responsible for the imbalance in the first place.

At no time during the speech was the disconnect between Bush and the Congress more apparent than during W's attempt to justify and defend his conduct of war. Basically it was a mulligan for the disastrous surge speech, that went over like a lead balloon. That section of the speech drew applause mostly from the GOP side of the chamber, but even many Republicans were clearly loathe to applaud and rarely stood. All indications are that the resolution in disapproval of Bush's Iraq "strategy" will have strong bipartisan support.

Grasping at straws, Bush larded his speech with numerous references to the attacks of 11 Sep 2001:

Five years have come and gone since we saw the scenes and felt the sorrow that the terrorists can cause.... We know with certainty that the horrors of that September morning were just a glimpse of what the terrorists intend for us -- unless we stop them.... The evil that inspired and rejoiced in 9/11 is still at work in the world.....

And there was a whole litany of supposed terrorist plots that had been foiled. If we ask, How are we to know? it is because we have been lied to and misled so many times that W's credibility is exhausted.

Democratic response

Sen. Jim Webb

Typically the response to a president's speech by a member of the opposition party is a pro-forma affair of little important. The Democrats, however, picked Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) to deliver the response to the SOTU, a masterful stroke: He is a former Republican who ran as a Democrat and beat incumbent George Allen, one of the presumed front-runners in the 2008 GOP race. He served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam, was Secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan, and has a son serving in Iraq. In short, he has impeccable national-defense credentials. And he seems itching to take on Bush. He did not disappoint. His speech hit hard on two topics, the economy and the war in Iraq.

When one looks at the health of our economy, it's almost as if we are living in two different countries.... With respect to foreign policy, this country has patiently endured a mismanaged war for nearly four years.... The President took us into this war recklessly.