Listening to presidents reporting on the State of the Union, you would conclude that they came from Lake Wobegon, since every one of them, by his account, is well above average. Just once, I'd like to hear one say what would be true of many: "Because of my mistakes, the state of the union has gotten worse."
But none ever does. Even the worst presidents prefer to focus on their successes and ignore their failures. The striking thing about President Bush's final State of the Union address is that even the successes he claims are largely fictional. Judged by his own criteria, the speech was a catalogue of failure in almost every realm.
With one year left in his term, we see a new figure: George Bush, fiscal conservative. He proposed to cut or kill 151 programs at a savings of $18 billion. He threatened a veto if Congress doesn't curb earmarks. He bragged that his new budget "will keep America on track for a surplus in 2012."
You would never guess this is the same president who had been in office nearly seven years before he finally vetoed a measure because it cost too much. Or who let non-defense discretionary spending rise nearly twice as fast as it did under Bill Clinton. Or who pushed through the biggest new entitlement program (Medicare coverage of prescription drugs) in 40 years.
The claim that he has set us on the high road to a balanced budget was not a George W. Bush moment but a George Strait moment: "If you'll buy that, I'll throw the Golden Gate in free." The Concord Coalition, a bipartisan fiscal watchdog group, calculates that 2012 will bring a deficit totaling $485 billion.
The president's proudest domestic program is the No Child Left Behind Act, which he hailed as a triumph. "Last year, 4th and 8th graders achieved the highest math scores on record," he said, referring to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. "Reading scores are on the rise." Here, he dodged data suggesting that the law has done nothing to improve educational outcomes.
Since it took effect, reading scores have barely budged among 4th graders and they have fallen among 8th graders. Math scores have risen, but not as rapidly as before. And in one international test, the Program for International Student Assessment, Americans' performance in math declined between 2003 and 2006. According to that test, says Andrew Coulson of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, "U.S. students have suffered overall stagnation or decline in math, reading and science in the years since NCLB was passed."
Bush has spent most of his energies on foreign affairs, but looking abroad does not brighten the picture. Bush claimed that because of the success of his strategy, "the surge forces we sent to Iraq are beginning to come home." The next day, though, the White House let it out that not all of them are returning just yet -- and that by the time Bush leaves office, the number of American troops in Iraq may still be higher than it was before the surge began.
He said the surge has "achieved results few of us could have imagined just one year ago." In terms of violence, he has grounds for that claim. But in terms of political reconciliation, Iraqis have failed to meet many of the major benchmarks that Bush demanded a year ago.
Then, he warned Iraqis that "America's commitment is not open-ended. If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people." But the Iraqis have balked, and Bush is letting them get away with it.
He bragged that thanks to our help, hope is on the rise in Afghanistan. In fact, 2007 was the deadliest year for U.S. troops and Afghan civilians since 2001. The Taliban has rebounded. One administration official recently told The Washington Post, "We're seeing definite expanded strongholds. That's not going to stop in 2008. … If anything, it's gaining momentum." In Afghanistan, things are getting worse, not better.
When he first went to Capitol Hill following his 2001 inauguration, Bush said he and members of Congress should aspire to earn "from our fellow citizens the highest possible praise: Well done, good and faithful servants." Whatever he hears from the American people when he leaves office next January, I'm guessing it won't be that.