Linda Chavez
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Like laundry lists and New Year's resolutions, most presidential State of the Union addresses are discarded from the memory bank shortly after they're delivered. President Bush's now-famous "axis of evil" phrase, which he invoked in last year's speech to describe Iraq, Iran and North Korea, is a notable exception. Then the president was riding high in the polls, and it seemed he embodied America's 9-11-induced sense of unity and purpose. Now, the country's mood has changed dramatically. With the nation on the brink of war with Iraq, and the economy sluggishly recovering from a recession and an abysmal bear market, many Americans have lost confidence in the president -- and themselves. Worse, Democrats, stung by their poor showing in the fall elections, are doing all they can to stoke the fires of discontent in the hopes it will improve their electoral chances come 2004. Given this gloomy scenario, is there anything the president might do to re-instill a sense of unity among Americans? The president is expected to lay out his case against Saddam Hussein, while trying to calm Americans' jitters about the shaky economic recovery. He will make a pitch for tax cuts, Medicare and Social Security reform, prescription-drug coverage for seniors and a new program for faith-based groups to receive federal funding to provide community services to the poor and others. But none of these is likely to inspire the commitment and sacrifice the nation needs at this moment in history. Americans don't need yet another catalogue of political promises of what the government is going to do for them. Most of us view these pledges with a healthy dose of skepticism, no matter how sincerely delivered. Even if the president means every word, there's no assurance he can deliver with a sharply divided Congress having the final say. So why not forego the political grab bag and focus instead on trying to inspire Americans to live up to their promise as the most well-endowed and gifted people in the history of the world? The president should give a speech that focuses on what it means to be American. For a time after the World Trade Center collapsed and the Pentagon burned, we seemed to understand the importance of national unity. We knew that we had fanatical enemies out to destroy us, but we also knew we would survive because we embody an ideal of liberty and opportunity that is too powerful to be crushed by those who represent only hatred, intolerance and envy. We knew that we would be called on to make sacrifices and that some would be asked to make the greatest sacrifice of all by giving their lives to protect the rest of us. But we also understood that Americans have always met the demand for selflessness and bravery. In the aftermath of 9-11, we also came to realize that for all the talk of multiculturalism and diversity, what really matters is not what makes one American different from another but what we hold in common. Our failure in recent years to transmit a sense of national identity to all American youngsters in our public schools needs urgent redress, and the president could use his bully pulpit next week to support a movement to promote patriotism and civic education in our schools. Instead of viewing the State of the Union as an opportunity to shore up his political base or reach out to new voters, the president could take the chance to speak about first principles. He could give a speech about the meaning of democracy and the importance of extending democracy to all people, everywhere. He could talk about the free market and why, even when we encounter cyclical retractions, the free market promises greater prosperity for more people than any other system. He could talk about our civic duties, responsibilities and obligations, and encourage us to become better citizens and community members. Wouldn't it be nice, just once, for a president to address his "fellow Americans" and mean it? Perhaps if our leaders treated us as citizens rather than consumers, we'd live up to those higher expectations.
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Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .

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