Monday, January 22, 2007

President Bush’s record of getting his State of the Union proposals enacted, after successes in his early years in office, has dropped off substantially.

Of the 12 initiatives that he proposed or called on Congress to pass in 2006, the White House can claim complete success on just three: renewing the Patriot Act, expanding health savings accounts and expanding electronic medical records. That followed unfulfilled calls in 2005 to reform Social Security and the tax code and to pass a guest-worker program for illegal aliens and future immigrants.

That record is a far cry from the major policies Mr. Bush proposed in his 2002, 2003 and 2004 speeches, and later won from Congress, including a stimulus package to pull out of recession in 2002, a $15 billion fund to combat AIDS, a prescription-drug benefit in Medicare, passage of the authority to more freely negotiate trade agreements and the goal of cutting the deficit in half.

This year, Mr. Bush is dropping the laundry-list-style proposals and will instead focus on five major themes, on which he thinks he can find common ground with Democrats.

“I just think some of the old State of the Union formulas have kind of run their course,” White House press secretary Tony Snow said last week, acknowledging that the new format is in part a reflection of the new political reality of Democrats controlling Congress.

Clark Judge, a speechwriter for President Reagan and Vice President George Bush, said the recent poor record of accomplishment is part of Mr. Bush’s overall political problem — falling approval ratings.

“That’s part of why his numbers dropped — that the achievements, what he set out to do, particularly in domestic policy, didn’t happen, Social Security reform being the big one, but so too making the tax cuts permanent,” Mr. Judge said.

Democrats said they just want to see action out of Mr. Bush.

“I wish the president would stop talking about things and just do something,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.

In 2002, Mr. Bush’s first State of the Union — as a new president he did not deliver such an address in 2001 — came as Democrats controlled the Senate. Yet with split control, the president rang up a series of substantial successes. In addition to the stimulus package and trade authority, he also proposed the USA Freedom Corps and won a new package of post-Enron scandal corporate rules.

His 2005 speech was grand in its reach, proposing to overhaul both the tax code and Social Security, as well as the immigration system. But none of those came to fruition, and by last year, he aimed lower, calling for a commission to look at Social Security and for moderate changes to laws.

Even those, though, proved too much, despite Republican control of Congress.

Many of the changes fell victim to Republicans’ failure to pass most of the annual spending bills that stymied many of his 2006 proposals, such as the Advanced Energy Initiative or training 70,000 high school teachers.

The White House blamed congressional Democrats, who instead of going back to work this year on those spending bills decided to continue 2006 funding levels through fiscal 2007.

“It’s unfortunate that this new Congress chose to move forward in a way that they have a yearlong continuing resolution rather than completing the important work of those appropriations bills,” said Scott Stanzel, a spokesman for the president.

Still, he said, the ball got rolling on many of their priorities.

“There was a lot of important work that went on last year both on the domestic and international front,” he said.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said that State of the Union addresses are the toughest speeches a president gives and that rarely do historians find them memorable. She said they are “time-bound” because they are usually tied to taking stock of last year’s accomplishments and the upcoming year’s legislative agenda.

That’s not to say they have been without memorable rhetoric, such as his 2002 declaration of Iran, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and North Korea as an “axis of evil.”

But this year’s different style of speech gives Mr. Bush an opening, she said.

And she said Mr. Bush’s opening salvo last year on energy policy — he declared the nation “addicted to oil” — sets the table for this year’s promised focus in part on energy policy. White House officials have told Republicans in Congress that they expect to make the most significant headlines on energy issues.

Mr. Judge said there’s still plenty of time for Mr. Bush to establish a good legacy, beginning with tomorrow’s speech and centering on Social Security and immigration and buying enough time for his Iraq policy to work.

“The pieces are in place, as bad as things look right now, for having had a very successful administration,” Mr. Judge said.

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