President Bush may be a lame duck, but he certainly didn't sound like one in his State of the Union speech this week.
The president was resolute, unapologetic, at moments even defiant when addressing the war on terror, Iraq and the Democrats' neo-isolationism. He did a good job painting his critics as clueless pessimists. One of the best lines in the speech -- "hindsight alone is not wisdom, and second-guessing is not a strategy" -- summed up perfectly why the Democrats have failed to convince most Americans they would keep the country safe in this dangerous, post-9/11 world.
He spoke passionately about the need to win in Iraq and to promote freedom and democracy as a bulwark to terrorism around the world. And he made up for his early fumbling in response to the Palestinian elections. Last week, the president seemed not to know how to square his desire to spread democracy in the Middle East with the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections. In a press conference following the Hamas victory, the president tried to put the best face on the results: "There was a peaceful process as people went to the polls, and that's positive,'' he said. "But what's also positive is that it's a wakeup call to the leadership. Obviously people were not happy with the status quo."
Actually, there was nothing positive about the elections, when the Palestinians once again proved Abba Eban's famous dictum that they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. But the president finally got it right in the State of the Union: "Elections are vital, but they are only the beginning. Raising up a democracy requires the rule of law, and protections of minorities, and strong, accountable institutions that last longer than a single vote."
The Palestinians have yet to demonstrate they are capable of real democratic government. They are far behind the Iraqis, who in barely a year have written a constitution (albeit not a perfect one) and are learning about power sharing and minority rights.
The president also made a spirited defense of his decision to direct the National Security Agency to intercept communications between foreign terrorists and their contacts and agents in the United States. Despite the best efforts of the media and the Democrats in Congress to convince Americans that the president has ordered spying on ordinary citizens, the public isn't buying it. But public opinion is fickle, and the president needs to keep defending his decision to order NSA surveillance on terrorists' communications.
He was right to remind his listeners that he is not the first president to order warrantless searches in order to protect Americans from foreign threats, even if it did cause Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to roll her eyes for the cameras. (Indeed, Sen. Clinton's reaction shots showed her steely and contemptuous, hardly a winning persona for a presidential aspirant.)
But as effective as the president was when speaking about the war on terror, as soon as he turned to domestic issues, the speech quickly degenerated. More government-funded research into producing ethanol "not just from corn but from wood chips and stalks of switch grass" will surely go down as one of the lamest ideas ever to come out of a Republican State of the Union address. Prior to the speech, the White House spin machine raised expectations that the president would offer something more specific in the area of health care reform, but he barely mentioned expanding health savings accounts and offered nothing more than a new commission to address needed changes in Medicare and Medicaid funding. And tax cuts earned only four short sentences out of a 50-minute address.
Thank goodness the president has had the opportunity to appoint at least two Supreme Court justices. Along with his generally excellent appointments to the lower courts, President Bush's only lasting domestic legacy may well rest with the appointments of Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts.
All in all, however, the country is better off with a strong leader on defense and foreign policy in these perilous times than a visionary on domestic issues. And President Bush showed once again in his State of the Union address he's the former, even if he can't quite live up to expectations on the latter.