Jewish World Review Feb. 12, 2004 / 20 Shevat, 5764
Why Bush's State of the Union message failed and what he can do about it
During Bill Clinton's eight years in the White House, State of the Union speeches were the pillars that held up his presidency. His popularity would soar in the weeks after the speech and sag as the year unfolded, only to be revivified by another speech in January.
It is almost unbelievable that President Bush's latest State of the Union message failed as miserably as it did, giving him no gain in the polls and failing to arrest his post-December slide. Bush's aides blame the slippage on the Democratic primary race, with its candidates bashing Bush at every turn.
But Clinton's State of the Union in 1996 was given amid a vigorous Republican primary in which the GOP attacked Clinton with vim and vigor. Yet he gained 10 points in job approval and seven in vote share against his GOP rival, then-Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, after his speech, points he never lost for the remainder of his presidency.
So why did Bush fail?
First, it was a man's speech. With its swagger and emphasis on defense and military action, it widened the gender gap that is Bush's bane. His emphasis on a manned mission to Mars further alienated women, who see education and healthcare as more pressing priorities than space travel and exploration.
Second, Bush made very few new proposals. It was a lazy State of the Union without the issue development and polling that should have preceded it. Perhaps Clinton's speeches were so effective because he realized that his presidency was based on words. Bush has based his on actions and may not fully appreciate the need to explain and justify them.
Third, it is not the pounding by the Democratic candidates that cost Bush his December approval rating points, but the relaxation of the terrorist environment. With an orange threat level and the United States canceling flights from France and Great Britain, Americans felt endangered and, with terror as the top issue, they turned to Bush, as they have done since Sept. 11, 2001.
But now that the nation is more relaxed, terrorism has faded again as the key issue. The most recent Fox News poll, taken this week, shows that the economy and healthcare both outrank terror as an issue and only 10 percent cite terrorism as the major issue facing the nation.
Bush has also failed to assume the posture of outrage and anger that he must in the face of obviously flawed intelligence data from the CIA and other agencies. Colin Powell seems more upset than Bush at this intelligence failure. The president cannot stand before the American people and keep his credibility unless he shows real anger at the deception or incompetence of those who led him astray with bad information.
He can and must continue to defend the invasion of Iraq as worth it. Most Americans agree that it was. But he needs to be the outraged consumer, instead of the shady provider, of intelligence information on weapons of mass destruction.
Bush is also imperiled by the early coalescing of the Democrats around Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. The lingering presence of Howard Dean and Wesley Clark in the Democratic field, long after they have ceased to have any viability, is stopping North Carolina Sen. John Edwards from emerging as the clear alternative to Kerry.
With Super Tuesday looming not far in the future, America may nominate a candidate without the race ever having become the one-on-one contest that usually eventuates. It's like declaring a winner of the Forest Hills tennis tournament without having a final round - rather like a coaches' poll naming the top NFL team rather than having a Super Bowl.
Kerry looks a lot stronger than he is right now. Mike Dukakis was strong too when he won the Democratic nomination in 1988 before America learned who he was. Kerry has a long way to go. He was, after all, Dukakis' lieutenant governor, and he comes from what Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) calls the People's Republic of Massachusetts.
But Bush's failure to convert his last State of the Union speech of his first term into points on the board must rank as one of the great failures of recent American politics.
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