P resident Bush’s State of the Union address
was little more than a campaign kick-off
speech, and not a rousing one at that.
For lovers of personal liberty and responsibility, limited government and free markets, the president hit only a few promising notes as he outlined the themes he will pursue in his re-election campaign.
At worst, the president pressed for ever-greater law enforcement powers by calling for renewal of the Patriot Act. And he chose to underline the odd topic or two (Why is the leader of the free world talking about steroid use and sexually transmitted diseases?).
At best, Bush forcefully declared that America will never seek a permission slip, presumably from the United Nations, to defend the borders of the country. He was right to note that some measures he has taken have contributed to reducing the risk of terrorism and that America needs to remain vigilant. He rightly said that individuals, not the government, know how to best spend and invest the money they earn.
The policy elements of his speech fell into three broad areas: the war on terrorism, the tax cuts that have contributed to an economic rebound and a Clintonesque laundry list of new programs. Most troubling is his aim to continue and expand policies that have not contributed to fighting terrorism but have had undesirable effects on personal liberty. He insisted to Congress, “You need to renew the Patriot Act,” which was passed in haste the month after the Sept. 11 terrorist acts but elements of which expire in 2005. Yet as we have noted, the expiring elements — such as snooping on Americans without a search warrant — should be allowed to sunset. It is not an inconvenience for law enforcement to get a court order to wiretap someone.
Not surprisingly, he defended the war in Iraq and the drive to seed the Middle East for democracy. But questions still remain: Where are the weapons of mass destruction? Where are the fundamental conditions that might promise a full flower of democracy across the Middle East? What is the U.S. role to enhance those identified?
The president was at his best defending his tax cuts. “The tax relief you passed is working,” he told Congress. “And because you acted to stimulate our economy with tax relief, this economy is strong, and growing stronger … . Americans took those dollars and put them to work, driving this economy forward. The pace of economic growth in the third quarter of 2003 was the fastest in nearly 20 years. … (T)he American people are using their money far better than government would have — and you were right to return it.”
Unfortunately, he then recited a long list of government programs that he just signed into law or wants enacted: the $40 billion per year prescription drugs plan for the elderly, a new jobs training program, a new $23 million program for drug-testing in schools, a new program to fight teen sexually transmitted diseases, a new program to promote marriage, and $300 million over four years for a new prison re-entry initiative. He even called on sports leagues to fight steroid use — something they’re already doing without government help.
Amid all the new spending proposals, the president even said he wants to reduce the increase in discretionary federal spending to 4 percent in the fiscal 2004 budget, which begins Oct. 1, down from a 12.5 percent average increase the previous two years. And he wants to cut in half the deficit of about $500 billion a year, within the next five years. How can he achieve that while spending more?
The 54-minute speech was about 10 minutes shorter than last year’s but seemed less substantive. Last year’s speech had the drama of the impending war against Iraq. This year’s speech seemed to be designed by political strategists — the hand of Karl Rove in particular — to throw bon mots to all the constituencies that the president’s advisers believe he needs to win the November election.
But it means that, except on the president’s tax cuts, Americans who favor much smaller government and greater personal liberty will not have a candidate from either party to root for.