Put substance, not style in State of the Union address

Posted: Jan 26, 2006 12:01 AM
It's usually a safe bet: The more hype surrounding an event, the more disappointing the event itself. Take the Super Bowl: After a two-week media circus, it's often the worst football game of the season.

The same principle applies to the State of the Union address. Until the 20th century, presidents quietly sent them to lawmakers in writing. But in recent decades, the state of the union address has become "The State of the Union Address," complete with wall-to-wall media coverage and "expert" commentary.

But all the style in the world means nothing unless the speech is based on substance. Next week's address will succeed only if President Bush can focus attention on three main topics.

The first is the war on terror. In recent weeks, we've witnessed a media frenzy over whether the president abused his authority when he authorized the National Security Agency to screen phone calls between suspected al-Qaida operatives. Former presidential candidate Al Gore accused him of "breaking the law repeatedly and insistently."

This all boils down to a fairly simple debate: Are we at war or not? If not, then monitoring calls may indeed violate our cherished civil liberties. But if we are at war, spying on our enemies only makes sense.

The president needs to remind the nation that we're still at war -- one that he warned us from the start would be long and unlike any we'd fought before. He should acknowledge setbacks, but also highlight our many successes -- and note the fact that we're winning. This doesn't necessarily mean presenting an exit strategy. It simply means reminding Americans of why we're fighting, what we're fighting for and how we're doing. And the president needs to make it clear that the war will end, with our enemies defeated.

The second thing Bush needs to focus on is how to expand and extend American prosperity.

America's economy is the envy of the world. It generates more than 100,000 new jobs every month. Unemployment has edged down to less than 5 percent, lower than it was in the late 1990s. Most Americans are better off than ever.

The president needs to make it clear that his policy of lowering tax rates is a key reason for this prosperity. Tax rates are down, but tax collections are up. Last month, the Treasury took in more in corporate taxes than it had in any month in history. Making the lower rates permanent would allow us to keep the economy strong.

Of course, we also must get spending under control. Washington spent almost $22,000 per household last year, the highest level since World War II. That's one-third higher than when Bush took office. This year, he should vow to reverse that trend.

Finally, his most difficult task: Bush must launch a process that will force all parties -- regardless of their ideological beliefs -- to confront the coming entitlement crisis.

Every year, the Social Security and Medicare trustees issue reports that show the programs are ticking time bombs. Unless they're fixed, these massive entitlements will swallow an ever-greater share of government spending in decades to come. Left unchecked, they will force Washington to raise taxes to European levels and crowd out spending on all other programs, from defense and diplomacy to education and homeland security, by 2045.

So far, the left's policy on entitlement reform has been to have no policy. That's unacceptable. Last year, Bush proposed saving Social Security through the creation of personal savings accounts, a sensible reform that would allow all workers to save for their own retirement. If liberals won't sign on to that, they must at least come up with some proposals.

Even if we can't immediately agree on the solutions, we need to agree there are problems and promise to work together to solve them.

In the end, after the television lights are shut off, Bush's State of the Union address should be judged on whether it highlights the truly critical challenges facing the nation and starts a substantive debate on those issues. If he hammers away at these three simple points, this year's address will live up to the highest expectations.

First Appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times