Starting Over

In his state of the union address in January, George W. Bush is widely expected to try to relaunch his presidency. That he needs a new start is a reflection of just how badly his second term has gone, even in the eyes of conservatives. His domestic initiatives regarding

Social Security and tax reform are dead in the water, and every milestone in Iraq has proved to be a mirage. Still, he is president for another three years, the future of our country depends on his decisions, and the potential damage to the nation from a failed presidency and fruitless war puts the opposition in a difficult position.

We can visualize the moment when Bush enters the House of Representatives for the annual rite. Democrats as well as Republicans will greet him with a thunderous ovation, and after he is introduced they will rise to applaud again. With Dick Cheney and Dennis Hastert sitting behind him, the president will tell us that the state of our union is strong.

The boyish smile will then fade from his face as he somberly thanks our servicemen and women risking their lives around the world. A moment later, he may seem downright cocky as he claims the economy is booming and cites a few favorable figures to make his case. As he recounts his accomplishments, he will gracefully share credit with the Congress for the Medicare prescription drug plans in which seniors will be enrolled. And he will declare that we are making progress in Iraq and must stay the course.

Those are among the predictable elements, but the speech will also have
to break some ground to make the idea of a new beginning believable. The difficulty here is that Bush's own policies have reduced his room for maneuver; he doesn't have the money for another prescription drug plan, the votes for reconstructing the tax system, or the troops for another war. He also faces the tricky task of keeping faith with his base, while at least appearing conciliatory to a broader audience. All the demands of the occasion suggest we may see one of those periodic appearances of Bush as compassionate conservative. It's a role he has shown he can perform artfully -- and cheaply -- by seizing on symbolic policies in the style Bill Clinton perfected or simply by making great promises and then not following through, as he did after Hurricane Katrina.

The theatricality of the State of the Union lends itself to presidential gestures. In deciding who sits near Laura Bush, the White House casting director will have a delicate choice to make. Will it be, say, a black woman from a church in New Orleans who saved orphans during the flood? Or a pair of soldiers -- one American, one Iraqi -- illustrating the progress toward transferring combat responsibilities? Or perhaps a Medicare beneficiary who has actually succeeded in figuring out the drug program and enrolled in a plan?

Afterward, on television, the Democrats will offer their official response (which bloggers will instantly denounce as lame), and sage commentators will then shake their heads sadly and say that Bush's opponents are too divided to agree on an alternative program. Perhaps Joe Lieberman will warn his fellow Democrats about being too critical; for, as he said in early December, “We undermine the president's credibility at our nation's peril” -- as if Bush had not created his own credibility problem by repeatedly making claims that turned out to be untrue.

The dilemma in a floundering presidency -- not an unprecedented situation in American history -- is how the opposition can continue offering the nation an alternative, constraining the wounded incumbent, without the national interest suffering more than it already has. Some issues, like Social Security, can wait for action, while others require constructive engagement from the opposition, if only to press the president toward a prompt resolution.

On the war -- which is the crux of the problem today -- there is an important difference between saying we will remain in Iraq until the insurgency is defeated or until the Iraqis can defend their state. The former is a recipe for an indefinite commitment, and it is vital that Bush himself conclude the war and not leave it to his successor. I write just before the December 15 elections in Iraq. Regardless of how they turn out, our objective should be a political settlement that incorporates the Sunnis and bars the formation of an autonomous southern region allied with Iran. Ideally, as part of that settlement, the Iraqis themselves will call for a U.S. departure on an expeditious timetable and Bush will accede. Then maybe the next president can have a genuinely new start.


Paul Starr is co-editor of The American Prospect.

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