WASHINGTON -- In political terms, President Bush's State of the Union address was a case of a day late and a dollar short.
It was probably always unrealistic to expect the president to deal with a problem as complex and vexing as the economic decline with a single stroke. But it was Mr. Bush himself who built the great expectations when he declined to offer plans to deal with the economy 60 days ago and then urged Americans -- notably including the 150,000 Republicans who will vote in the Feb. 18 New Hampshire primary -- to "stay tuned" until last night.
Given that stage-setting, it was puzzling that the White House could produce nothing in the way of immediate help for the economy that could not have been produced back in November. Bush called for a moratorium on new federal regulations, accelerated spending by some departments and reductions in tax withholding to put more cash into play. But all of these things could have been done 60 days ago -- or 45 or 30 days ago. Why they had to wait for a State of the Union speech is a mystery.
Quite beyond the timing question, there is reason to wonder whether these are the kinds of things that will offer any comfort or encouragement to Americans concerned -- even preoccupied, in New Hampshire -- with the security of their jobs. The president's assault on government regulations is, of course, a gesture to those conservatives who are convinced that government interference in business is the root of all the national economic malaise. But is an idled worker in New Hampshire going to see a connection between his future and the "regulatory overkill" Mr. Bush scorned?
The president also seemed to misjudge the political realities with the partisan tough talk in his speech. He set a March 20 deadline for Congress to act on his long-term economic plan, a totally unrealistic deadline, and then threatened political warfare if that timetable were not observed. "From the day after that, if it must be," he said, "the battle is joined."
Such an ultimatum might have made some political sense coming from President Ronald Reagan in 1981 or even from Mr. Bush himself in those heady days eight or nine months ago when he enjoyed the approval of 85 percent of the American people. Those were circumstances in which a threat to go "over the heads" of Congress to the voters carried some force. But times have changed. The president has hit a level in his approval ratings even below that President Jimmy Carter suffered in 1979, not the position from which anyone can be threatening.
Even if that were not the case, however, there is another legitimate question about the political wisdom of picking a fight with Congress. If there is one thing clear in New Hampshire, to cite the most pertinent example, it is that voters are far less interested in partisan blame-placing than in finding someone who offers the hope of a return to economic health. It is not a time for politics as usual.
In a sense, that was what was wrong with the speech; it was too much a product of politics as usual. The president offered conventional crowd-pleasers by, for instance, repeating his demands for approval of his crime and education plans. And he offered some old chestnuts, such as his demand for a line-item veto that everyone knows is a dead issue because no Congress is going to cede power to any president of either party.
Mr. Bush tried to convey a sense of urgency and force by evoking the memory of those glorious days of Desert Storm. "This will not stand," he declared in tones that sounded much more inspirational and appropriate when he was talking about driving Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait than when applied to raising the Gross National Product. Dealing with economic distress is not a question of vanquishing an enemy; it is a matter of building confidence among consumers and businesees that is now so conspicuously lacking.
President Bush is in increasingly serious political trouble. Although he remains favored to defeat conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan in the New Hampshire Republican primary, no one would be surprised if he were nicked badly enough to be on the defensive well into the election year.
For two full months, he and his advisers have been pointing to the State of the Union address as the golden opportunity to regain the political initiative. The country would be watching, just as it was when he delivered that stellar acceptance speech at the Republican convention in 1988. But what he offered instead was boilerplate politics as usual. The only saving grace is the disarray among the Democrats.