A Union of Freedom and Responsibility

Lucas Morel

January 1, 2003

President Bush’s State of the Union address was a snapshot of everything he is: a man of God, a man of his word, a man of the American founding, and, yes, a former governor.

The president once again reminded the American people that they are a nation under God. In discussing his faith-based initiative, Bush alluded to a Christian hymn with a reference to “power, wonder-working power.” And he closed his speech with an invitation to place “our confidence in the loving God behind all of life and all of history.”

Given his personal and public piety, it’s no surprise this Republican president spoke of “building a more welcoming society—a culture that values every life,” while the Democratic response of Washington State Gov. Gary Locke endorsed “a woman’s right to choose.” Locke should read the more famous John Locke, a philosopher who taught the American founders that the most fundamental right is the right to life, which government exists to protect.

The best line of the speech conveyed both the nobility and humility of the American way of life: “The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world; it is God’s gift to humanity.” Not a bad rendition of the self-evident truth that all men are created equal. And this from the president the press faulted for his verbal missteps. It’s quite refreshing to have a president who thinks the American founding is worth setting one’s sights by.

Bush was smart to leave the best—the most urgent and the most important—for last: foreign policy, where his sense of duty and honor came through with conviction and purpose. “One by one, the terrorists are learning the meaning of American justice.” And, “Let’s put it this way, they are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies.” Can anyone imagine former Presidents Clinton or Carter saying this of terrorists who no longer walk this earth because of the noble sinews of American power?

The president clearly put forth an American foreign policy that sees prevention—not reaction—as the best means of national defense. He noted that while America will consult with the United Nations on February 5th, “the course of this nation does not depend on the decisions of others.” This is one tough hombre, who takes his oath of office seriously— to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

The least memorable part of his speech was his wish list for Congress. Here his experience as a former governor played up compassion at times to the detriment of conservatism. We expect state governments to administer programs and take care of the various and diverse needs of citizens. But a federal program to produce hydrogen-powered automobiles? Hardly a typical line item from a conservative Republican president.

That said, his promotion of economic growth as the key to job creation and greater tax revenues was a return to standard conservative policies. So, too, was his rejection of “a nationalized health care system that dictates coverage and rations care,” and a request to offer younger workers an alternative to Social Security that gives them “a chance to invest in retirement accounts that they will control and they will own.” In short, Bush hopes to streamline two huge budget items in a manner that preserves the freedom and responsibility of individuals.

The themes of freedom and responsibility addressed by the president will shape his legislative agenda on both domestic and foreign policy. It remains to be seen if the new Republican-controlled Congress holds the same vision for America.

“Free people will set the course of history.” A simple statement by the president. May the United States rise to the challenge of the responsibility of freedom.

Lucas Morel is assistant professor of politics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia and is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center.