WASHINGTON -- While jumping up on cue to cheer during the speech and delivering rave reviews afterward in the Capitol's Statuary Hall, conservative members of Congress were deeply disappointed by George W. Bush Tuesday night. It was not merely that the president abandoned past domestic goals. He appeared to be moving toward bigger government.
The consensus on the Right was that President Bush's fifth State of the Union Address was his worst. Republican congressmen agreed privately that he was most effective at the beginning with his familiar message of why U.S. forces cannot abandon Iraq. The problem for these lawmakers was the rest of the 51-minute presentation, which was filled with unpleasant surprises.
With polls showing the president's approval rating persistently anemic (as low as 39 percent), the speech aimed at a kinder, gentler Bush. But beyond atmospherics, the policy initiatives staked out new directions in the sixth year of his presidency that raised questions. Is this the real George W. Bush? Is he really his true father's son and not Ronald Reagan's?
The president seemed more comfortable with his foreign policy declarations than with what followed, but even here he did not live up to expectations. Pre-speech tips from White House aides and from Bush himself had pointed to laying down the law to the Iranian regime (step back from nuclear arms) and the Hamas party in Palestine (recognize Israel). He did so, but not with the force and specificity promised.
As expected, Bush backed away from what a year earlier were labeled as the two great initiatives of his second term. He complained that "Congress did not act last year on my proposal to save Social Security," unintentionally setting off self-congratulatory celebration by Democrats on the floor. But Bush made no promises about trying to revive his personal accounts. The president did not even give the comprehensive tax reform the courtesy of a death notice. It went unmentioned and apparently unmourned.
Prior to the speech, one conservative Republican senator fantasized about Bush turning to Democrats and calling on them to pass permanent tax cuts and then turning to Republicans and calling on them to cut spending. He did call for permanent tax cuts and for control over spending, but so briefly and undramatically that the president's demands lost their impact.