You could tell that this was a president for the first time facing a Congress controlled by the opposition party, and not coming from a position of strength. President Bush was sober, almost somber at times, and his proposals at least gave the appearance of being calculated to appeal to more than a few Democrats.
He was gracious to the new speaker, Nancy Pelosi. It was a speech for the realities of the day. Social conservatives weren’t even thrown any bones, let alone red meat. This president was out to convince Democrats and moderates that he is still relevant, that he’s willing to work together, that governance is for both parties.
It probably won’t make much difference. As outwardly polite as the Democrats were on this largely ceremonial occasion, they are unlikely to give this president anything he would be able to define as a victory during the coming legislative session.
One exception might be energy, the topic on which the president has conspicuously fallen in step with Democrats. He plans to quintuple current mandates for “alternative fuel” over 10 years, and that means fat subsidies for heartland farmers and ethanol manufacturers.
The fact that it takes more energy to produce ethanol than the ethanol can subsequently generate — that subsidizing ethanol is subsidizing a net loss of energy at higher prices — seems lost on the political class. It makes corn farmers happy, it gives environmentalists the illusion of doing something, and oil companies are starting to see it as a gravy train and jump on board. Its potential for success, as oil analyst Daniel Yergin wrote this week, has boundaries, including the slow rate at which gasfueled cars leave the nation’s fleet.
Unfortunately, the taxpayers lose.
When we saw the summaries of his other proposals early in the day, we thought perhaps President Bush, aware he was unlikely to get much done legislatively, was aiming for a legacy with bold domestic proposals with the capacity to change the terms of debate, if not during his term then soon afterward. Except for a passing mention of fixing Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security before they implode, however, his actual speech proposed mostly modest ideas of limited scope.
Changing the tax treatment of health insurance is the most interesting. The idea of offering an individual tax exemption for the purchase of health insurance rather than a tax benefit only to employers is intriguing. It offers the possibility of making people act more like consumers in an increasingly competitive marketplace rather than like dependents who expect somebody else to handle their problems.
The idea brings the free market into the debate, but seems unlikely to pass due to Democratic opposition.
It will be fascinating to see whether the Democrats will cooperate with President Bush to pass a “comprehensive” immigration reform they are more likely to support than are most Republicans. And his remarks on Iraq restated much of his Jan. 10 address, but we noted that he raised the concept of a “civilian corps” to support the military — a notion that needs more explanation.
State of the Union messages are often exercises in make-believe, pretending political solutions from Washington can solve all ills and make us happy. The president’s message was firmly in that tradition.