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State of the Union: Split dynamic

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 30, 2002 — Keep political strategist Karl Rove away from the Oval Office. When President George W. Bush sticks to foreign policy and the war on terrorism — the issues on which he’s advised by the likes of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice — he shows resolve, determination, and leadership. When he ventures into domestic affairs — the issues that Rove attempts to mastermind — he gets lost in the wilderness.

That split dynamic defined last night’s State of Union address. Bush started the speech strongly, succinctly updating viewers on the progress of the war in Afghanistan. Despite a few fumbled phrases in the beginning of the address, he began the crucial work of preparing the American public for the next steps in the war on terrorism, wisely citing the need "to prevent regimes that sponsor terror from threatening America or our friends and allies with weapons of mass destruction." Bush singled out North Korea, Iran, and Iraq for special attentiveness. In so doing, he ended the State Department’s feckless conciliatory gestures toward Iran — a country to which former secretary of state Madeleine Albright apologized only two years ago — and drew a line in the sand regarding Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. He also named two Palestinian terrorist groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which previously had been excused from scrutiny at the behest of Saudi Arabia.

On the domestic front, the best aspect of Bush’s agenda involved a policy plank borrowed from Arizona senator John McCain, a Republican, and Indiana senator Evan Bayh, a Democrat. For the first time since September 11, Bush moved beyond his exhortations to Americans to live their lives and challenged citizens to play more active roles in their country. Bush proposed a "USA Freedom Corps" charged with the dual domestic and international mission of rebuilding and protecting American security and fostering development in the Islamic world. "Through the gathering momentum of millions of acts of service and decency and kindness, I know we can overcome evil with greater good," Bush stated.

Bush’s economic program, however, represented a lackluster mix of Republican gruel. Even in view of the tremendous scandal over the politically connected and now-bankrupt Enron, where thousands of workers found their pensions to be worthless, Bush is still pushing to reform Social Security by giving Americans the ability to invest in the private market. Franklin Roosevelt wisely constructed Social Security to serve as a floor for workers at the close of their careers. Bush’s privatization scheme leads only to the frightful prospect that American workers risk having no retirement money at all because of future Enrons.

Bush also came out in favor of providing health benefits along with unemployment benefits. This is a welcome relief for anyone struggling to pay for health insurance with a meager unemployment check.

In his response, House minority leader Richard Gephardt, whose speeches are generally characterized by one wooden bit of partisan boilerplate after another, gave one of his better public addresses. Gephardt shamelessly cribbed from John F. Kennedy, saying America would "bear any burden" to win the war on terrorism — though a reassuring statement from the Democrats backing Bush’s stance on Iraq would have been welcome. He addressed the areas where Bush was deficient — campaign-finance reform, Social Security, energy self-sufficiency. In general, Gephardt’s refusal "to accept that while we stand shoulder to shoulder on the war, we should stand toe to toe on the economy" marked a fair statement from the opposition in time of war.

Issue Date: January 31 - February 7, 2002
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