Wednesday, February 02, 2005

SOTU

A transcript is here, among many other places. Here's my commentary, as yet uninfluenced by reading that of others.

"...next week I will send you a budget that holds the growth of discretionary spending below inflation" - Good! - "...and stays on track to cut the deficit in half by 2009." - Sigh; a nominal cut in discretionary spending is required to actually balance the budget anytime soon. "My budget substantially reduces or eliminates more than 150 government programs." - Also good, though he gives one the impression that all the savings will go towards "strengthening America's community colleges," "increasing the size of Pell Grants," "a community health center in every poor county," providing "strong funding for leading-edge technology -- from hydrogen-fueled cars, to clean coal, to renewable sources such as ethanol." First of all, ethanol should be discussed in the context of beer, not government subsidies. Second, even if I loved every one of these initiatives, I'd still say they're mostly state and local matters, although that argument was lost during the New Deal.

As for Social Security, I was hoping Bush would at least pick on the five ways to cut benefits he mentioned, or foreswear cutting benefits - lead already. Other than that, I loved the Social Security reform part of his speech. He carefully started with "strengthen and save Social Security" and promised the status quo for those at least 55, and then compellingly argued for a reform that included private retirement accounts.

The show of support for the FMA, which has no chance of getting the required two-thirds approval in the House and Senate, apparently makes some conservatives feel better, and presumably angers some liberals; that's about all it does.

Okay, did you make it through the domestic half of the speech? At times it was a laundary list, as most SOTUs are. Even the short blurbs I wrote above are rather dry compared to the foreign policy half of this SOTU. Ever since 9/11, defense and foreign policy have obviously been Bush's passion, and it shows in his speeches. I survived the laundary list by telling myself that the uplifting part was on its way. Finally, it arrived. I earlier described Bush's inaugural address as "nothing new" because I interpreted the freedom rhetoric as long term stuff, and in the subsequent press conference Bush made clear that his speech did not indicate policy shift. However, it did indicate a rhetoric shift: for this SOTU, Bush gets props for singling out Saudi Arabia, Egypt Syria, and Iran as in need of freedom.

Bush moved on to talk about Iraq, basking in the afterglow of the Iraqi elections. A few Iraqis in the gallery held up inked index fingers. Then came the moment of the evening. A little while after Bush talked about "[o]ne of Iraq's leading democracy and human rights advocates is Safia Taleb al-Suhail" and we saw her in the gallery, Bush spoke of fallen Marine Corps Sgt. Byron Norwood, and of his parents seated in the gallery right behind Safia Taleb al-Suhail. Safia and Byron's mother embraced, and for a minute the President was a spectator along with all the rest of the chamber and the TV viewers, all of us watching a very emotional scene.

Bush couldn't come close to topping that, but he gave a decent closing with that characteristic optimism he derives from his faith: "The road of Providence is uneven and unpredictable -- yet we know where it leads: It leads to freedom."

The Democratic response: Harry Reid presented himself with a folksy charm, and he wisely emphasized the moral dimension of his arguments. As for substance, I really didn't care for his protectionism, and I was amused by how his complaints about the deficit were followed by advocation of a "Marshall plan" for the US, which were in turn followed by complaints about Bush's Social Security reform increasing the national debt. Nancy Pelosi had the opposite of charm, more often than not staring bug-eyed into the camera and spending almost all her time on complaining in a grating tone.

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