- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 31, 2002

In his first State of the Union address, President Bush moved from soaring rhetoric to practical politics and back again. It is a speech that history will likely, to quote Lincoln, "little note nor long remember." In fact, it is most notable for what it failed to address and what it failed to do.

In fairness, it would have been difficult for Mr. Bush to surpass his masterful address to the world in the uncertain times immediately after September 11, and it would have been a mistake for him to try. His address at that time to a joint session of Congress rallied the nation's resolve and removed from the minds of most any doubts that may have lingered as to whether he had the stuff to lead the nation. Clearly he does, as numerous polls reflect.

Mr. Bush has managed to sustain a record level of job approval since September 11. And, unlike other presidents before him, his personal approval appears to be translating into a general shift of popular support for the Republicans.

Building on the hard work and successes of Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich and others who led the party before him each of whom was essential in the creation of the developing national GOP majority even if their personal approval did not survive their accomplishments Mr. Bush is riding the crest of a wave that has the American people rallying to the Republicans like they have not since the turn of the 18th century.

Senior presidential adviser Karl Rove is keenly aware of this phenomenon, avid student of William McKinley that he is. The current political divisions, the lack of a clear majority for either political party, the major economic and social changes underway and the war will result in a new political alignment. Those who suggest stagnation is an indicator of GOP slippage forget the long march to parity the Republicans have made since the mid-1970s, when the party was almost wiped out at every level of government by the Watergate scandal.

In the State of the Union, Mr. Bush had an opportunity to accelerate that change. Instead, instinctive consensus builder that he is, he chose to husband his political capital in an effort to cement the status quo.

It is a risky strategy that may pay tremendous dividend in the future, but it also cries out as a lost opportunity.

Having, in a way, inherited both the war and the recession, the American people do not blame Mr. Bush for either but do look to him for resolution of both crises. The speech, divided into three parts, addressed both issues in a thorough but conflicting manner.

Declaring in the early part of his address that "the state of the union has never been stronger," Mr. Bush established America's resolve to win a war against an enemy unseen, except when they strike, had not diminished.

Thoughtfully laying out the conduct of the war thus far, the steps that were to come and the need for new strategies and alliance to combat the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, Mr. Bush used clear and uncompromising rhetoric to rally Congress and the nation to these challenges, the kind that will reshape the world order for decades to come.

The second part of the speech, however, was much less successful. Presidents typically approach the State of the Union address as the opportunity to present their laundry list of programs and requests to Congress just before the administration's budget is released. In peacetime, this is an adequate, if unspectacular, approach to policy-making. The president has the opportunity to make his points but he is, at the conclusion of the speech, immediately taken to task from all sides.

Perhaps the Bush White House banked that the American people, who are currently giving Republicans high marks on most issues, would view a bidding war as unseemly and that Mr. Bush's tremendous consensus-building skills are enough to trump practical politics. It is a risky strategy, and one that is likely to work up until the poll numbers shift and the American people begin to give Mr. Bush the blame for the economic downturn, if it hasn't ended by then.

The final third of the speech was, by far, the best enunciated with themes that, had the entire speech expressed them clearly, would have made it a speech for the ages.

America is a threat to oppressive, bestial regimes merely because of the premium we place on liberty and individual rights are a stark contrast to their way of governance. The president said as much in the best lines of the address: "America will lead by defending liberty and justice because they are right and true and unchanging for all people everywhere. No nation owns these aspirations, and no nation is exempt from them. We have no intention of imposing our culture but America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law … limits on the power of the state … respect for women … private property … free speech … equal justice … and religious tolerance."

The people of this country and of the world really need to be lead into a conversation about what it means to be an American, why our nation is as it is. Tuesday's speech was an opportunity to start it off but it was an opportunity missed. Fortunately, there will be others, and we should all hope that Mr. Bush avails himself of one of them, sooner rather than later.

Peter Roff is a national political analyst for United Press International.

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