Setting the stage for war and peace

President Bush: Basking in the good will of Congress and the approval of the nation.

January 31, 2002

POOR RICHARD Gephardt.

The Missouri Democrat and House minority leader had a tough act to follow Tuesday night when he spoke in response to President Bush's State of the Union address. Bowing to the inevitable, he began by commending the president for a fine speech.

And a fine speech it was. Mr. Bush appeared comfortable, delivering his well-crafted remarks with a confidence and sincerity he had markedly lacked in the first year of his term. Mr. Bush clearly relished the frequent and sustained applause that interrupted him every few sentences, much of it coming from both the Republican and Democratic sides of the aisle.

The State of the Union address has evolved over the years into an annual public-relations extravaganza for the president. And though it is always given extensive coverage by the media, many Americans think of it as a ho-hum event, if they think of it at all.

This year was different. This was a wartime address delivered by a still-new president tempered by the crisis of Sept. 11 and steeled by the national resolve that crisis engendered. It was both a somber and celebratory occasion, and Mr. Bush rose to it well.

As expected, the president concentrated most of his remarks on the war against terrorism, vowing to wage the fight for as long as it takes and to spend as much as it takes. He invoked the image of tens of thousands of trained terrorists roaming the globe like ticking time bombs waiting to go off. He hinted at spreading the crackdown on terrorism to Iran, Iraq and North Korea, which he called an "axis of evil."

But he outlined no plans for dealing with the threats posed by those countries, and in truth, there is no real evidence of those tens of thousands of ticking time bombs. Nonetheless, these were clearly more than mere rhetorical devices. The president was attempting to establish the rationale for an almost $50 billion increase in military spending in his 2003 budget.

On the home front, he called for extended unemployment benefits, improved Head Start and early childhood development programs, tax credits to help uninsured workers and prescription drug coverage under Medicare. Sounds like an agenda even a Democrat could love, but the devil, as usual, is in the details.

And speaking of the devil, the name of Osama bin Laden, who continues to elude the U.S. armed forces' best efforts to capture him, was never uttered by Mr. Bush. Nor, for that matter, was the name Enron. This was, after all, the president's moment to shine, no tarnish allowed.

But the Enron scandal cast its shadow nonetheless, as Mr. Bush called for safeguards for pension and 401(k) plans, stricter accounting standards and tougher disclosure requirements for American corporations. He also made a pass at strengthening Social Security, but this once-hot issue has apparently taken up residence on the back burner.

And where is the money to come from for this heightened defense at home and abroad - more than $30 million a day, Mr. Bush said - along with a veritable cornucopia of domestic programs? From a return to deficit spending, which the president described as "small and short-term." In fact, his proposed budget is expected to show a deficit of $106 billion this fiscal year and $80 billion the next.

It's the price of fighting for freedom, according to Mr. Bush, and that may well be. But it does not square with his call on Tuesday night to make permanent the temporary tax cut that was passed when the country was at peace and the budget balanced.

That issue, with all the rest, will be the subject of contentious congressional debate in the coming days - and a contentious debate is what the country deserves. President Bush praised members of Congress for their bipartisanship in the face of a national crisis, but the best interests of the nation demand vigorous debate on issues so critical to our future. After all, patriotism and political dissent are no strangers.

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