WASHINGTON -- George W. Bush was determined that his first official State of the Union address would not be a Clinton-like laundry list of sundry legislative proposals. He succeeded with an eloquent presentation, but stepped into uncharted, hazardous territory as a war president fighting an ill-defined, possibly ill-prepared war against new enemies.
President Bush's unexpected blunt threat to Iraq, Iran and North Korea trumpeted a turn in the war against terrorism not previewed by White House aides. That effectively removed the Enron scandal from the headlines and, at least temporarily, from the capital's political consciousness. So accustomed have members of Congress become to endorsing Bush's anti-terror initiatives that even Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle routinely seconded the president's course.
Beneath the surface, however, are misgivings on Capitol Hill among some Republicans who were on their feet Tuesday night applauding and cheering threats to the three rogue nations. Knowledgeable members of the Armed Services committees are aware that "expensive precision weapons" cited by Bush are in short supply thanks to the success in Afghanistan. The U.S. military today is in no condition to attack anybody.
Nevertheless, without congressional consultation, the president proclaimed a new course in the war on terrorism that more clearly reflects the Pentagon's mindset than the State Department's. He did not refer to the search for Osama bin Laden, nor even utter the name of the world's most famous terrorist. He mentioned al Qaeda only once.
Thus, Bush abandoned seeking some connection between the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the next step in the war on terrorism. Indeed, the nexus between the three rogue nations and any kind of terrorism was slender, with the president asserting these countries "could provide" weapons of mass destruction "to terrorists."
State Department senior officials hastily told reporters the president's speech did not promise quick action against the "axis of evil," but that was not the message Bush sent the world when he declared "time is not on our side." The U.S. now is not seen searching out al Qaeda in Indonesia, Hamburg or Detroit, but as the world's only superpower, stands militant against global weapons proliferation.
Shortly before the speech, a presidential aide told me Bush was not emulating President Franklin D. Roosevelt's abandonment of domestic programs when World War II began (FDR said "Dr. New Deal" had given way to "Dr. Win The War"). Yet, the war president of 2002 is not the conservative candidate of 2000.
Bush did, briefly, reiterate commitment to across-the-board tax cuts and eventual, partial privatization of Social Security. However, no time was allocated in a 45-minute speech for hardcore conservative issues he campaigned on such as banning partial-birth abortion and eliminating racial quotas. Private school choice long ago perished in the education bill compromise.
Republican senators who wanted the president to chastise the Democratic leadership for not confirming the president's judicial nominations were disappointed. Nor did Bush heed unrealistic recommendations from House Republicans to promise elimination of the budget deficit.
Rather, Bush trespassed on Democratic turf, proposing addition of prescription drugs to Medicare and health care for the unemployed. While not mentioning Enron by name, his corporate pension reforms mirrored Democratic proposals. His major new venture was expansion and remodeling of the AmeriCorps volunteer program, a pillar of Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign (though Bush aides laughed off the suggestion by ex-Clinton aide Mike McCurry that he credit the former president for coming up with the idea).
That poses a slim Bush silhouette for Democratic sharpshooters. The memo distributed to Democratic lawmakers just prior to the president's speech by attack specialists James Carville and Bob Shrum called for tying Bush to the Enron scandal, but Daschle rejected it publicly Wednesday morning. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt's Democratic response Tuesday night ruled out "toe to toe" slugging with Bush on domestic issues.
With the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll showing Americans feel Bush can cope with problems better than congressional Democrats by 62 percent to 32 percent, the loyal opposition treads softly -- especially when it comes to fighting terror. The venerable Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, senior member of Congress, expressed doubt about the president's expanded war. But most of his Democratic colleagues are cheering for now.