As Jimmy Carter’s dismal presidency drew to a close, his field of vision was narrowed to an embassy in Tehran. On Richard Nixon’s last day, all he could see was a tape recorder. When Lyndon Johnson left office, all was forgotten but Vietnam. After his speech to the nation last week urging a larger troop commitment in Iraq, it seemed President Bush was destined to go down the same narrowing road to oblivion.
But his State of the Union speech Tuesday night boldly broadened his presidential agenda and vision. He once again became the president of the United States, not the mayor of Baghdad. By articulating viable, and potentially bi-partisan, proposals on energy independence, global climate change, healthcare, immigration reform, education standards and a host of other issues, he renewed the 360-degree mandate that should be the span of vision of any president.
And even as he hewed to a strict line on Iraq, he broadened his foreign policy vision to encompass the danger posed by Iran’s potential for acquiring nuclear weapons and his domestic agenda to highlight his administration’s breathtaking success in thwarting terrorist attacks at home. Missing only was a focus on North Korea, which cannot be allowed to keep its nuclear arsenal without provoking a nuclear arms race among China, Japan and North Korea that will leave Washington, Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing scared to death.
President Bush even found time to discuss his singular achievements: the economy, oil prices and the falling deficit. In recent months he has seemed to ignore his own track record as he pleaded for a longer tenure in Iraq. But the economy is growing nicely and its surging tax revenues — particularly from capital gains — lead some experts to predict the same kind of rapid deficit eradication as buoyed Clinton’s last years as president. And oil prices are dropping; we see their reflection as gas prices hover around $2 per gallon.
George W. Bush finally seems to have grasped a crucial but ironic fact: The only way he can keep sufficient credibility and power to continue his commitment to victory in Iraq is to raise his approval ratings. The presidency’s inherent powers are largely titular unless animated by national support and popularity. While an unpopular president still gets the corner office, his practical ability to act is severely constrained. There is an ongoing need for a daily majority in his national approval ratings for him to govern.
But the only way he can get those ratings — in order to continue to fight in Iraq — is to talk about issues other than Iraq! Even if the war begins to go well, the blood and violence will continue and he will always come out on the short end of the national debate about the war. But if he expands his constituency by addressing issues like global warming, energy independence, and the Iranian and North Korean nuclear threats, he can achieve the approval ratings he needs to govern — and to fight on in Iraq.
Americans will always make time to listen up when the subject is the possibility of a nuclear war. Bush can command a national consensus as he moves against Iran and North Korea. We will pay close attention to anything he does to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and will hail any initiatives that lead to greater consumption of alternatives to gasoline. And Americans are sufficiently cognizant of the dangers posed by climate change to welcome the president to the fold if he indicates a real desire to turn the corner and stop the progression of deadly worldwide warming.
In our hearts and our heads, we realize that the stakes involved in these issues are more important than those in Iraq. If Bush leads the way on these subjects, Americans will follow and even cheer. If he insists on slogging on in Iraq, a majority will continue to be pessimistic and discouraged, but Bush will still be able to summon their support by a focus on the broader agenda on display in Tuesday’s address.