The home front

January 21, 2004

NO WONDER President Bush had to turn to Mars in search of a visionary idea to highlight his re-election campaign agenda.

The lackluster program outlined in his State of the Union address last night is a reheated collection of been-theres and done-thats, which dutifully hit the required political touchstones but mostly proclaimed "steady as she goes."

It's an understandably cautious approach for a chief executive who figures he finished his third year in office on a strong note, and just wants to stay there. If he can keep the economy on an upward trend, and somehow choreograph a graceful exit of most American troops from Iraq, the buy-and-hold strategy might work.

Polls suggest the country is narrowly, if sharply, divided on domestic issues, so Mr. Bush may think he will be able to garner a winning edge from Americans who believe his claim that he has made them safer. He won applause with reminders that Saddam Hussein was captured in a hole, Libya is seeking peace, and two years have passed since a terrorist attack on American soil.

If anything, though, Mr. Bush is seeking to sharpen that domestic line, which mostly cuts between those who are prospering and those who are not.

Over the course of his term, Mr. Bush has spread around the combined largesse of both substantial tax cuts and hefty government spending. He promises more of the same. But the have-nots, the many Americans who lost ground during the Bush presidency, found little solace in his words last night.

He spoke of helping displaced workers gain new skills to deal with the increasingly technology-based economy. But under his administration, job training programs have been consistently cut.

He boasted of raising public school standards and accountability, yet much of the federal aid that was supposed to accompany his pledge to "leave no child behind" has not materialized.

He bragged about the not-yet-realized benefits of the legislation to provide Medicare beneficiaries with prescription drug coverage, and vowed to resist a not-yet-materialized threat to take those benefits away.

On broader access to health insurance and retirement benefits, the president proposed increasing tax credits and incentives. But such proposals do little for those without enough income to benefit, and they further shift the burden of health and pension costs from employers to employees.

By tradition, State of the Union addresses are intended to include something pleasing for everyone. Indeed, in a bow to his conservative base, the president promised to defend the sanctity of marriage against same-gender unions. But in the next breath he reinforced the moral teaching that "each individual has dignity and value in God's sight."

Yet one subject the president failed to address during his 54-minute speech was the proposed mission back to the moon and Mars that he unveiled with much fanfare last week.

Turns out it didn't poll well. One of many trial balloons that deserve to be shot down.

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