Web exclusive 1/31/02
What America stands for
President Bush's State of the Union speech was magnificent not just
as oratory but as national leadership
By Michael Barone
George W. Bush's State of the Union
speech Tuesday night was magnificent, even
better than his superb speech on September 20. It was magnificent not just
as oratory but as national leadership.
It was first of all the speech of a commander in chief. It has often been said that
Americans will not tolerate a protracted
war or one with many American casualties. This has always been wrong: Americans will support a war for a righteous
cause over many difficult months and years
and with many casualties if their president
shows that the war is just and explains his
overall strategy and how much progress
we are making. Abraham Lincoln and
Franklin Roosevelt did this and were re-elected in two of the highest-casualty years
in American history, 1864 and 1944.
In his State of the Union speech, Bush
explained where we are in the war against
terrorism and where we are headed. With
meticulous care, he explained that the
training camps in Afghanistan have been
shut down, but not the training camps elsewhere. He explained that American forces
are now helping to fight terrorism in Somalia, Bosnia, and the Philippines.
And he set a new course for the war.
"Our second goal is to prevent regimes that
sponsor terror from threatening America
or our friends and allies with weapons
of mass destruction. He named North
Korea, Iran, and Iraq, saying they form
"an axis of evil." And "all nations should
know America will do what is necessary
to ensure our nation's security."
In other words, we will work to undermine the regime of the mullahs in Iran
and to overthrow the regime of Saddam
Hussein in Iraq. As Michael Ledeen has
pointed out in National Review Online,
Bush thus settled the differences in his administration on how we should deal with
Iran and Iraq. The war on terrorism has
seemed to be in a lull: Activity in
Afghanistan is limited, and American
efforts elsewhere are not overwhelming.
But Bush made it plain that this is only
a lull before a storm. The Iranian mullahs
and Hussein surely understood what Bush
meant: He seeks to destroy their regimes.
The American people henceforth are on
notice as well. Some time before Bush delivers his next State of the Union address,
there will be major changes, changes for
the better, in their part of the world.
Also on notice are America's Democratic politicians. With the important exception of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, they are
leery of going after Iraq. Instinctively, they
incline to diplomatic rather than military
solutions. Going after Iraq is seen as extremist. From the writings of Al Gore's
chief foreign policy adviser, Leon Fuerth,
we can be pretty confident that a President Gore would not have chosen, as Bush
seems to have, to go after Iraq. But however reluctant the Democrats would be to
initiate such action, they are, in my judg ment, likely (probably with a few exceptions) to support taking the war against
terrorism to Iraq. Their support of the war
so far has been sincere and heartfelt. They
know that Bush has the people on his side;
polls have consistently showed that 70 percent of Americans favor taking on Iraq.
They know that they cannot deny that Hussein is dangerous and not amenable to
compromise. So they will go along and
keep any misgiving to themselves.
So will almost all our allies or coalition partners. "Some governments will be
timid in the face of terror," Bush said. "And
make no mistake about it: If they do not
act, America will." When Bush says "make
no mistake," he means it. When the United States shows determination, others do
what they would never have done on their
own. We have seen that with President
Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan. We have
seen that with France and Germany and
others. We will see it again.
Bush also set out, more clearly and vividly than he has before, what America stands
for in its war against terrorism. We stand
for "freedom," he said over and over again.
And he listed "the non-negotiable demands
of human dignity: the rule of law, limits
on the power of the state, respect for
women, private property, free speech,
equal justice, and religious tolerance."
Using the language of the campus protesters of his youth ("non-negotiable demands"), he set forth a list of freedoms
that appeals to all segments of the American electorate: economic conservatives
(limits on the power of the state, private
property), feminists (respect for women),
advocates of civil rights (equal justice), religious conservatives and nonbelievers (religious tolerance). Bush did in this speech
what Franklin Roosevelt and Winston
Churchill did when they proclaimed the
Four Freedoms in the Atlantic Charter
of August 1941; he told Americans and the
world what we stand for.
Bush devoted most of his speech to
the war. But he also masterfully framed
the issues in domestic politics, invoking
bipartisanship even as he advanced his
own policies. He unflinchingly promised
budget deficits and urged Congress to hold
down spending. This provides him a basis
for what he did last summer on the farm
bill and last fall on domestic spending: use
his threat of a veto to lay down markers
for appropriators that they will dare not
exceed. The appropriators don't like it, but
they are not ready for a public fight with
a wartime president with an 80 percent
job approval rating. He demanded that the
Senate pass a stimulus package, trade
promotion authority, and an energy billmeasures that Senate Majority Leader Tom
Daschle has kept from the floor. Daschle
already knows that his decision to block
the stimulus package was a political loser.
In the recent ABC-Washington Post poll,
for example, Republicans led Democrats 48 to 39 percent on improving the
economy. So last week, Daschle dropped
his insistence on a Democratic version
of healthcare finance for the unemployed
and all but pleaded for a compromise stimulus package. He knows that on high-visibility items he dare not fight the president.
Bush sounded like the Democrats on
some issues. He called for a patients' bill
of rights and a Medicare prescription drug
benefit. But he seems likely to use his veto
threat to insist on his versions. He responded, without saying so, to the Enron
collapse by calling for new safeguards for
401(k)'s and stricter accounting standards
and tougher disclosure for corporations,
and said corporate America must be "held
to the highest standards of conduct." So
much for Democrats' attempts to use
Enron to batter him. And Bush raised one
issue that many congressional Republicans wish he would forget: individual
investment accounts for Social Security.
But Bush's endorsement of "personal retirement accounts for younger workers
who choose them" is good politics as well
as good policy. Democrats this fall will be
trying to scare old people into believing
the Republicans will take their Social
Security away. Republicans would be well
advised to tell young people that they need
something better than the current system.
In this 48-minute speech, Bush did more
than talk about the war and domestic issues; he talked about the national character. "After America was attacked, it was
as if our entire country looked into a mirror and saw our better selves,'' he said. "We
were reminded that we are citizens with
obligations to each other, to our country, and to history." This was the theme of
Bush's August 2000 acceptance speech.
He called on citizens to donate 4,000
hourstwo years' work timeto others.
He announced a USA Freedom Corps, an
expansion of Bill Clinton's AmeriCorps
program that sends low-pay volunteers
into jobs with charitable and community organizations. And, again echoing a campaign theme, he insisted, "For too long our
culture has said, 'If it feels good, do it.' Now
America is embracing a new ethic and a
new creed: 'Let's roll.' "
In other words, rather than a hedonistic, lethargic, ever-demanding population, we should be a giving, duty-doing,
proactive citizenry. Americans in the Clinton years believed the economy was advancing but the culture was deteriorating.
Bush tells us we can dowe have been
doingbetter. It was a call to duty and
to alertness that Clinton, the shirker of
duty and feeler of pain, could never have
convincingly issued. Bush has moved away
from the economic conservatism and cultural conservatism of the recent past to
a conservatism as muscular as Theodore
Roosevelt's and as compassionate as the
faith-based charities he took care to mention. Americans are determined to prosecute the war on terrorism, but most have
been puzzled about what they can do personally. Bush has pointed them toward
It has been noted that George W. Bush
has appeared on television news programs
since September 11 less than his leading
advisers. Like Franklin Roosevelt, who delivered only a handful of Fireside Chats
during World War II, he has carefully
rationed his presence and has made his
words count when he finally delivers them.
For some weeks, it has been unclear where
the war on terrorism is going, where domestic policy is headed, what the war tells
us about American character, what ordinary citizens can do. In 48 minutes in the
House chamber, George W. Bush told
us all those things, in clear and graceful
language, with obvious sincerity and heartfelt force. The war has just started, but he
is already a great war leader.