After months of pounding by the Democratic presidential candidates and many in the media, President Bush struck back Tuesday night. In his State of the Union speech, he did something unusual for him: He took on the arguments of critics about his foreign and domestic policies and said they are wrong.
While barely acknowledging that at least some of his antiwar critics might have been acting on principle, the president said the world and the Iraqi people are better off without Saddam Hussein and the mass murders he committed, and that there would have been serious consequences had Saddam been left in power. The president might have drifted off into defensiveness. Instead, he directly and artfully made a good case, noting in one applause line, "for diplomacy to be effective, words must be credible and no one can now doubt the word of America."
He called on Congress to make permanent his tax cuts and, in what sounded like a campaign theme, said, "Unless you act, Americans face a tax increase" when the current law expires.
On other economic matters, the president sounded less credible. He called for Congress to act as "good stewards of taxpayer dollars." But this Republican Congress has spent more than any Democratic Congress in recent memory. And this president has not used his veto pen even once to force Congress to be better stewards of the people's money. An omnibus spending bill that awaits passage is full of enough pork to gag a sow.
As the Wall Street Journal noted in an editorial the morning of the speech, the GOP has been on a spending spree that exceeds by far Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. During Bill Clinton's administration, non-defense discretionary spending rose just 2.5 percent. During President Bush's three years in office, it has jumped 8.2 percent. Having tasted such huge amounts of pork, Congress is not likely to listen to the president's call for limiting the growth in discretionary spending to less than 4 percent and reducing wasteful spending.
The president gave social conservatives what they were looking for. He promised to spend more on abstinence education, noting that abstinence is the only guarantee against acquiring a sexually transmitted disease. In the biggest red-meat issue for social conservatives, he called for a "constitutional process" (meaning an amendment) should all other efforts fail to keep "activist judges" from imposing same-sex "marriage" on the country. He noted it was President Clinton who signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law in 1996. Bush demonstrated his "compassionate" side when he said that while the outcome of the debate is important, "so is the way we conduct it. The same moral tradition that defines marriage also teaches that each individual has dignity and value in God's sight."
His pitch for Congress to enact his proposal to "reform our immigration laws" by allowing employers to hire immigrants who are here illegally is going to face tough going among Republicans. He said it isn't amnesty, but not calling it amnesty does not make it something else. Sen. John Kyl (R-Ariz.), who chairs the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on terrorism, technology and homeland security, has announced his opposition to amnesty for illegals.
Polls indicate large majorities believe President Bush is doing a good job defending the country and fighting terrorism. The same polls indicate slightly fewer than half think he's doing a good job domestically. He'll have to work on closing that gap, but it should not be done by creating new programs and trying to outspend Democrats.
The president's speaking skills improve every year. He is more confident and comfortable in his skin. He'll need those qualities to rebut the fusillade of rhetorical missiles Democrats are launching in their effort to bring down his favorable poll numbers. The State of the Union speech shows Bush knows how to fire back effectively and that to underestimate him is politically dangerous.