State of the Union: War, Recession

January 30, 1991

In a state of the union address shadowed by the clouds of war in the Persian Gulf and recession at home, President Bush found reassurance last night in the prospect of sustained cooperation with the Soviet Union. With obvious relish, he told the Congress that he had been given "representations" that some Soviet troops would be withdrawn from the Baltics and Moscow would move away from violence to reopen dialogue with rebellious republics.

His dramatic announcement, coming after consultations with the new Soviet foreign minister, Alexander A. Bessmertnykh, emboldened Mr. Bush to talk of a continuing effort by the two superpowers to build "a more peaceful future for all mankind." "If fulfilled" -- and Mr. Bush did put in this caveat -- a less belligerent Baltics policy by President Mikhail S. Gorbachev would ease bilateral tensions and permit the United States to prosecute the war against Iraq with greater confidence that the international coalition will hold.

In words reminiscent of the 19th century theme of manifest destiny, the president proclaimed that only the United States (and, implicitly, not the Soviet Union) has "the moral standing and the means" to exert world leadership and create a new world order. "American leadership is indispensable," he declared. "We have a unique responsibility to do the hard work of freedom. . . We are the only nation on this earth that could assemble the forces of peace."

He stated anew that the United States would succeed in the gulf war, claiming the U.S. cause is just, moral and right. But Mr. Bush set no timetable and gave no details on the armed struggle that lies ahead. Instead, he sought to balance his focus on the Middle East -- a region not even mentioned in his state of the union address a year ago -- with words of encouragement about the "recession" -- a word he disdained until recently,

In policy departures, some of the most notable were the president's call for the elimination of political action committees, the principal funding groups for both parties; his assertion that Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative against a Soviet strike would be "refocused" to include protection against limited attacks from any source (i.e, the likes of Iraq) anywhere; a $20 billion revival of the old federalism concept of transferring federal funds to the states, and a landmark banking reform effort.

Despite sweeping rhetoric about "a renewed America," this was a president with a limited program, pinched by a lack of resources, pledged to keep domestic spending below the inflation rate and reaching for routine rationales for an early end to the recession. He reiterated his call for a cut in capital gains taxes, naming Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan to head to special study.

Twice, Mr. Bush said this is a "defining hour" for the United States. The nation must know it is also a "defining hour" for the president personally -- as well as for our troops in the field -- and must wonder what message it will hear a year hence.

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