George W Bush defended his record in his seventh and final state of the union speech on Monday night. Bush claimed his administration had “answered the call” on issues relating to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the world economy and health and social welfare. Essentially Bush was talking up his record of neo-conservative military adventuring and free trade abroad while madly deficit spending at home. However while Bush was attempting to airbrush history, he introduced little new agenda in his near hour-long speech. It was also totally lacking in any attempt to address the world’s greatest problem: climate change.
Yet as usual the president received tumultuous applause. The joint houses here were applauding the office of presidency not its incumbent. Bush himself is gaining very few plaudits for his actions and is struggling to maintain any sense of relevance as the 2008 race for the White House hots up. With Bush’s popularity rating at a low 31 per cent, and second term rot setting in terminally, this year’s reception for the rehashed ideas in this speech was faint praise at best, and more often derisive and scathing.
CBS News compared how powerful Bush appeared in his 2005 speech, newly re-elected and “the most powerful person on the planet” to the “broken man” of 2008. The New York Times editorialised about “six years of promises unkept or insincerely made and blunders of historic proportions”. Meanwhile, the Washington Post also gave a damning indictment when it said Bush was “running on empty” and had “nothing new to say”. According to its political columnist Dan Froomkin “nothing he said will help bring the country together, or undo the damage he has done to American interests abroad, [or] will help him win back the trust or support of the American people, both which he lost a long time ago.”
Bush is the elephant in the room of 2008 Republican candidates who have all studiously avoided any mention of the president during the campaign. The Republicans have been on the nose since their defeat in the 2006 congressional elections. Bush exhausted all his political capital after his second election win. Most of this he squandered in 2005 with a failed bid to reform social security and a pork barrel spending binge on a highway bill. It was followed by the devastating impact (both physical and political) of Hurricane Katrina. Bush’s inept response to the crisis confirmed the impression that he was a bumbling fool. The continuing morass in Iraq didn’t help either.
This was Bush’s seventh State of the Union (his initial effort in 2001 was more of a budget speech). Messages to the Congress are mandated by Article II, Section 3 of the US Constitution which states the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” George Washington clarified in 1790 that “from time to time” actually meant annually.
Until the early 20th century, the State of the Union was a written report sent to Congress. Woodrow Wilson changed this in 1913. He believed the presidency wasn’t just an impersonal institution; it was dynamic, alive, and personal. According to this philosophy, Wilson delivered an oral message to Congress. While Coolidge and Hoover both reverted to the written report, Franklin Roosevelt firmly established the modern tradition of an oral State of the Union.
In his 2008 speech Bush mentioned the word “terror” or “terrorist” 23 times. Gore Vidal asserted that the “war on terror” was as absurd as a “war on dandruff” because it is impossible to go to war against an abstract noun. In 2004 Chalmers Johnson painted a damning picture of Bush’s legacy in his book The Sorrows of Empire. Johnson's fourfold prediction is more apt than ever today. They are: a state of perpetual war, a significant loss of democratic and constitutional rights, a system of glorification of the military, and economic bankruptcy. No wonder America is anxious to move on from the Bush era.