Why were so many Democrats smiling during President Bush's State of the Union speech? It wasn't because they agreed with him on all his domestic priorities. It must have been because they recognize a good politician when they see one and George W. Bush has turned into one of the best.
The stock market may be down, reflecting the recession, but President Bush's stock continues to rise. The people want to trust their president of whatever party and in President Bush they've found one worthy of that trust.
While the president forcefully noted that the war against terrorism is not over but just beginning, and that as many as 100,000 terrorists trained in now closed camps in liberated Afghanistan have spread around the world like a virus, waiting to strike again, he also exuded confidence that the United States can defeat them.
Bush took the high ground and invited Democrats to join him there.
At first, I thought it was a bad idea to publicly praise liberal politicians like Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., but the president may have a greater purpose than making friends with his political adversaries. He's playing to public opinion in a way that will make the Democrats look partisan and petty if they don't help him win the war. So tax and spending policies will now be reflected through the prism of the war effort and if Democrats won't help the president win the war against recession, by implication he wants the public to think they are hurting his efforts to win the war against terrorism.
CNN's Candy Crowley called Bush's speech "one part policy, one part theater and all politics." By appearing noble, the president stands a good chance of obtaining his personal goals, especially in the fall congressional elections.
President Bush has assumed the role of prophet, lecturing the public on right and wrong and good vs. evil. He paraphrases biblical language to communicate powerful truths. When he said, "we can overcome evil with greater good," Bush borrowed from the Apostle Paul's admonition, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Romans 12:21) In context, this verse refers to what to do when wronged by an enemy, but Bush seemed to be saying that while the government will fight terrorists (and overcome evil with a righteous sword), the American people should overcome the evil done to the nation by performing good works for their fellow citizens.
What ought to disturb Democrats the most is not just the president's huge approval ratings but also this finding in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll. Those polled were asked: "Please tell me whether the following statement applies to Bush or not: 'He understands the problems of people like you.'" The response? Yes: 61 percent. No: 37 percent.
No Republican president in recent years - in fact, no Republican leader - has been able to attract that kind of support from people who believe he feels, or understands, their pain. The president's call for Congress to act to better protect people's retirement accounts should inoculate him against attempts by Democrats to cast him as uncaring in the wake of Enron's collapse.
The image conveyed by the State of the Union address is that President Bush is in charge; he knows where he wants to go and how to get there; he cares about people who suffer - either because their loved ones died on Sept.11, or they are out of work, or they've lost their retirement money. People can do more for themselves if they know their leader cares what happens to them and is trying to help remove obstacles to a better life.
George W. Bush believes the state, as well as the health of the Union, rests not primarily in government but in the people. His call for volunteerism, including expansion of the Peace Corps and cutting taxes to allow people to care for themselves and others, reflected that philosophy. He seemed to be saying that the state of the Union is strong because we the people have proved ourselves strong. Psychologically, theatrically and politically, that is a message people want and need to hear.