- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 23, 2003

On Jan. 9, 1790, George Washington traveled a few blocks from his residence in New York City to the temporary Capitol at Federal Hall and delivered the first State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress. Lawmakers reciprocated, when the full Senate and some House members visited the president's mansion, providing a response to his address in person.
Congress always responds to the president's message certainly not in person anymore; and normally not with the speed, intensity and direction he desires. Yet, this year, lawmakers should heed the president's call for a new approach to meeting human needs by building a culture of service in this country. President Bush's "compassion agenda" has lacked the attention it deserves over the last two years. His allies in Congress should help him change that.
Presidents lay out broad themes and policy recommendations in the State of the Union message. It is a time when the separation of power narrows as the three branches of government huddle in the House chamber. Presidents, according to Karlyn Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson in "Deeds Done in Words: Presidential Rhetoric and the Genres of Governance," use this annual opportunity to communicate "public meditations on values, assessments of issues and policy recommendations."
For more than 200 years, this pageant of democracy often changed the tone and substance of American political rhetoric. President Jefferson thought the practice "too royal" and sent his message to Congress in writing. For the next century, presidents wrote often eloquent messages to lawmakers. Woodrow Wilson reinstated the tradition of the speech to a joint session in 1913, a practice subsequent chief executives have followed ever since. The State of the Union address has been the vehicle for such historical utterances as James Monroe's Doctrine, Abraham Lincoln's assertion that America represents the world's "last best hope," FDR's Four Freedoms and LBJ's Great Society.
No doubt this year's address will focus on urgent domestic and foreign policy themes. Yet, President Bush's broader philosophical domestic policy idea his initiatives aimed at changing how the federal government helps people and strengthens communities deserves reinforcement from his allies on the Hill and careful consideration by the media.
The president helped his party reach parity with the Democrats on the education issue by proposing a credible, creative and results-oriented alternative to the current system. He then repeated the message through a series of dynamic visits to schools across the country.
The president will replicate this model on social welfare policy. If successful, it will enhance Mr. Bush's legacy and challenge 60 years of New Deal dogma. He hopes to shift the debate from ends to means, saying to the Democrats, in effect, "let us stop fighting about who wants to help people we all do and start debating the best way to do it."
Mr. Bush will highlight initiatives such as the Citizens Service Act and faith-based legislation programs that help people by fostering results-oriented, smaller, community-based organizations. He believes empowering these organizations is a better way to assist Americans than relying exclusively on distant government-backed bureaucracies.
The President's compassion agenda will not seek to end the federal role in providing social services, but redirect it. He will propose that lawmakers consider four principles in reforming social policies: 1. Condition federal funding based on an organization's ability to demonstrate it can attract more people to provide services to the needy; 2. Encourage participation by smaller, community-based organizations, closer to the people receiving services; 3. Ensure every organization receiving federal money demonstrates performance measures. How many people fed? How many homes built?; 4. Establish greater state and local, rather than federal control of these organizations.
Mr. Bush needs his allies to take these initiatives and his new rhetoric seriously. One Republican familiar with the White House plans said, "The president has talked about these ideas for a while and wants them to be one of his legacy items. He's frustrated they have not been taken more seriously on the Hill."
Republicans have been too timid developing new ideas and rhetoric to compete with the Democrats in promoting social welfare policy. President Bush will provide his party with new communications tools and programmatic ideas in next week's State of the Union.
Republicans should respond, not by visiting him at the White House, as lawmakers did with President Washington more than 200 years ago. Instead, they should promote legislation to enact his compassion agenda and aggressively talk about this alternative approach to helping people in need. By doing so, Republicans will boost themselves politically, with the president, change the debate, and encourage millions of Americans to broaden a culture of compassion and citizen service across America.

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