War has loomed large in each of President Bush's three State of the Union speeches. The first celebrated victory in Panama, the second the expectation of victory over Iraq and the third, last night, victory in the long Cold War. Yet when Mr. Bush was at his feistiest, it was in anticipation of the next war -- his own war -- against Democrats who clearly foresee an opportunity to defeat a recession-plagued Republican incumbent.
The president gave his opponents 52 days to enact a short-term agenda to give the economy "an immediate burst." Then, in anticipation that Democrats in Congress will counter with more ambitious proposals he will find unacceptable, he declared that after the March 20 deadline "the battle is joined . . [and] I relish a good fight."
This was George Bush in an aggressive stance. No apologizing for having failed to anticipate hard times. No concessions on such political hot buttons as health care and capital gains taxes. No hesitation in invoking the rhetoric of the gulf war to assert that this recession "will not stand." A few subtle pokes at his GOP rightwing foe, Patrick Buchanan, by paraphrasing Barry Goldwater ("isolation in the pursuit of security is no virtue").
There were some important omissions from this annual report to the country. Manuel Antonio Noriega, Mr. Bush's captured quarry in Panama, went unmentioned though his trial is still underway in Miami. Saddam Hussein, still a taunting presence in Baghdad, was conspicuous by his absence from the speech. The record $362 billion deficit anticipated for the current year was invisible as the president spun out ways of jump-starting the economy without discussing how his initiatives will be financed. Even abortion, an issue on which Mr. Bush has veered from pro-choice to pro-life over the years, went unmentioned -- perhaps because the polls suggest it is a losing issue for the president.
Yet the man on the rostrum in the House of Representatives and the legislators semi-circled before him in that historic chamber shared one thing in common last night: They are all incumbents together. Democrats may inveigh against programs they consider too conservative or too helpful to the rich, but they can scarcely oppose outright his call for a $500 increase in the personal tax exemption for dependent children, a reduction in tax withholding formulas in paychecks, a $5,000 tax credit for first-time home buyers and a new loophole permitting home-buyers to tap into their IRAs.
The result may produce some immediate help for the economy this spring -- before political high season begins. But in the end, this president and this Congress should be judged by how their actions will affect the nation's long-term economic future. On that issue, last night's proceedings were far from reassuring.