President Bush was obviously aware that his final State of the Union Address will shape not just his final year in office but will help to shape his legacy. His speechwriters began work on the speech text in early December (very unusual) and a final draft was ready more than a week ago (unheard of). The President spent a week practicing the speech to set the right tone for the remaining months of his term of office. The result was a confident, articulate and forceful delivery that we have rarely seen from President Bush.
His greatest challenge during the State of the Union address was to be heard above the cultural cacophony in America — fears about an economic recession, the still-simmering anger over the Iraqi war, the uncertainty in both parties over which candidate will get the party’s nomination, the President’s dismal approval ratings, polls that show the public thinks the state of the nation is only fair or poor, and the sense that this President’s time has come and gone.
Fortunately, the pomp and tradition of the annual State of the Union speech gave the President an opportunity to drown out the nation’s negativity about “now” by focusing on the future and what the President called his “sprint to the finish.” His themes — trusting and empowering the American people — were chosen to cement the two contrasting elements of his “compassionate conservatism.” While the repetitive theme became tiresome, it provided the motivation behind his efforts in the coming year to spread freedom and hope, make his economic stimulus package work and continue the progress of the surge in Iraq.
The language of the speech reinforced the President’s sprint imagery; he used words like “vigorous,” “determined” and “powerful.” There were memorable phrases — in describing his judicial nominees, he said they would “rule by the letter of the law, not the whim of the gavel.” He had humor — the IRS will accept checks and money orders for those who want to pay higher taxes. He countered the prevailing notion that the nation is in recession — jobs increased a record 52 straight months; the problem is more inflation than recession.