The State of the Union and Bush’s Presidential Campaign
January 1, 2004
You knew the President won the first skirmish of his reelection bid when both Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Tom Daschle began their “Democratic Response” to his State of the Union address by agreeing with him: “The state of our union is strong.” Here is how Bush put it: “In their efforts, their enterprise, and their character, the American people are showing that the state of our union is confident and strong.” From the outset, the President reminded Congress that the key to American prosperity resides in the people themselves.
The strength of the President’s State of the Union address was his “majoring on the majors, and minoring on the minors.” His major themes? First, the war on terrorism is a just war (“Our aim is a democratic peace, a peace founded upon the dignity and rights of every man and woman”), one that has shown clear progress, and one we would be unsafe to give up on (“America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our people”). He devoted half his speech to the state of national security, and what was required to fulfill the government’s “greatest responsibility”: “the active defense of the American people.”
Second, he focused on the tax relief Congress passed last year: “The American people are using their money far better than government would have and you were right to return it.” This helped individual Americans—not government—produce a robust economy, and suggests the means for continued progress.
The minor points of his address? The usual list of proposed Congressional spending and programmatic priorities, which struck me as surprisingly shorter than previous lists. True, his call for professional sports to “Get rid of steroids now!” was not exactly a Lincolnian moment. Nevertheless, he made clear his tremendous faith in the American people and what he called “the unseen pillars of civilization”: families, schools, and religious congregations.
The talking heads complained that the speech lacked any memorable lines or phrases, but I disagree. Bush has made a habit of calling Americans back to their founding principles, and I continue to be impressed by his consistent restatement of these principles and their application to the problems and challenges we face. For example, “I believe that God has planted in every heart the desire to live in freedom”; “the same moral tradition that defines marriage also teaches that each individual has dignity and value in God’s sight”; and “the cause we serve is right because it is the cause of all mankind.”
One should also appreciate how his speech taught the American people how to think morally about foreign policy. Take, for example, his warning against the development or acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran and North Korea: “America is committed to keeping the world’s most dangerous weapons out of the hands of the world’s most dangerous regimes.” Note the implication that the threat of nuclear proliferation inheres in the character of the regimes that seek or possess these weapons, not in the mere possession of them. As a candid review of the 20th century attests, an America guided by the ideals of human equality and self-government is not a threat, but a promotion of a just and peaceful world. Nuclear weapons in the hands of rogue regimes would produce the opposite result.
Last, and for Bush, certainly not least, we witnessed his continued reliance upon God. He reminds the nation, and the world, that earthly justice and peace need to be guided by transcendent principles and not merely imposed by military might. “The momentum of freedom in our world is unmistakable and it is not carried forward by our power alone. We can trust in that greater power who guides the unfolding of the years.”
Early in his address, Bush remarked, “We have not come all this way through tragedy, and trial, and war only to falter and leave our work unfinished. Americans are rising to the tasks of history, and they expect the same of us.” There is the President’s campaign slogan in a nutshell: You don’t change horses midstream. If Congress heeds this exhortation to stay the course, the American people and the civilized world should reap the benefits, which bodes exceedingly well for Bush’s re-election.
Lucas E. Morel is associate professor of politics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia and is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center.