The same principle applies to the State of the Union address. Until the 20th century, presidents quietly sent them to lawmakers in writing. But in recent decades, the state of the union address has become "The State of the Union Address," complete with wall-to-wall media coverage and "expert" commentary.
But all the style in the world means nothing unless the speech is based on substance. Next week's address will succeed only if President Bush can focus attention on three main topics.
The first is the war on terror. In recent weeks, we've witnessed a media frenzy over whether the president abused his authority when he authorized the National Security Agency to screen phone calls between suspected al-Qaida operatives. Former presidential candidate Al Gore accused him of "breaking the law repeatedly and insistently."
This all boils down to a fairly simple debate: Are we at war or not? If not, then monitoring calls may indeed violate our cherished civil liberties. But if we are at war, spying on our enemies only makes sense.
The president needs to remind the nation that we're still at war -- one that he warned us from the start would be long and unlike any we'd fought before. He should acknowledge setbacks, but also highlight our many successes -- and note the fact that we're winning. This doesn't necessarily mean presenting an exit strategy. It simply means reminding Americans of why we're fighting, what we're fighting for and how we're doing. And the president needs to make it clear that the war will end, with our enemies defeated.
The second thing Bush needs to focus on is how to expand and extend American prosperity.
America's economy is the envy of the world. It generates more than 100,000 new jobs every month. Unemployment has edged down to less than 5 percent, lower than it was in the late 1990s. Most Americans are better off than ever.
The president needs to make it clear that his policy of lowering tax rates is a key reason for this prosperity. Tax rates are down, but tax collections are up. Last month, the Treasury took in more in corporate taxes than it had in any month in history. Making the lower rates permanent would allow us to keep the economy strong.
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