His Lips Moved, But….

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“Ladies and Gentlemen, the state of the Union is….is….is….”

If you clicked on your television several hours ago hoping to hear the President of the United States finish that sentence, and in doing so give you a sensible and coherent framework for understanding the complex and sometimes frightening world you inhabit, you listened for 53 minutes, and you listened in vain. The nation George W. Bush described in his final State of the Union address to Congress bore a fairly strong resemblance to the nation as we knew it back in, say, 2003, but it could not be passed off as a vision of the America we see in January 2008. Similarly, the agenda he outlined had a musty whiff to it; it was so full of hardy perennials, of ideas whose time had come and long since gone, that an observer was left wondering if some speechwriter’s assistant mistakenly loaded the wrong text into the teleprompter – with the unexpected result that Bush delivered the whole thing without ever noticing that the words he spoke had been spoken (by him) before, and were oddly detached from both current events and current attitudes.

Perhaps that seems overly critical, maybe even unfair. It is true that – unlike in previous years – President Bush began his address by praising the opposition for its cooperation in passing a bipartisan economic stimulus package of measures to address the recession-is-only-a-matter-of-time economy. He did acknowledge that times are tough for some Americans, and he did respond to the pox-on-both-houses antipathy caused by the profligate government spending we’ve seen in the epidemic of earmarks over the past decade. He promised the withdrawal this year of some 20,000 American troops from Iraq. And he pledged an additional $30 billion towards the fight against AIDS in Africa and other poor countries.

Otherwise, the speech was a lengthy recapitulation of old Bush 43 promises and programs, many of them meriting new attention only because their funding is about to expire. There was a call to continue the work of No Child Left Behind legislation, a reference to faith-based charitable organizations, an insistence that the 2001 and 2003 income tax cuts be made permanent, a declaration that American forces are “making progress” in Iraq and a pledge to bring “justice” to our enemies. There was a demand that Congress revise and pass again the soon-to-expire FISA bill, and that this time lawmakers include protections for American companies – i.e., the phone companies – that provide help in the struggle against terrorism. There were promises made to improve the care we give our veterans and dare-to-dream paeans to democracy and leaders like Mahmoud Abbas, the far-from-new president of the Palestinian Authority.

And all the while, the attention of both the media watching it and of roughly half, if not more, of the lawmakers and government workers who piled into the House chamber, was focused intensely on the slender young first-term senator from Illinois and his new best friend – the grizzled, aged, white-haired liberal lion from Massachusetts with the unsteady gait and still-private memories of one brother’s presidency and the other’s inspiring campaign. Barack Obama and Ted Kennedy stood together in the chamber, befitting their new bond and the excitement it has generated. They also stood within a few feet of Hillary Clinton, who looked on as if she neither knew, nor wished to know, either of them. (To be fair, Hillary did at one point shake hands with Kennedy; it was Obama who seemed always to have another place to focus his attention.) The impact of the Big Endorsement conferred earlier in the day across town could still be felt, and the focus on the race to win the White House only served to further diminish its current occupant.

Bush tacitly acknowledged the obvious paradigm shift in American politics – away from national security and foreign wars to the parlous state of the economy and domestic issues – by spending his first 25 minutes (nearly half the speech!) talking about matters unconnected to Iraq or any other national security or foreign affairs issue. But while he spoke about domestic issues at some length, none of what he said seemed likely to resonate with families who worry that the home mortgage crisis, high fuel prices and a collapsing consumer market are conspiring to drive the U.S. economy into a recession.

The presidency, no matter who occupies it, is always relevant. All it takes to turn today’s has-been back into the leader whose every utterance matters is a dramatic, unforeseen event. But for now, absent that kind of surprise, George W. Bush seems a glaringly spent force – a leader of great consequence just biding his time until historians come to realize their folly and (he hopes) rehabilitate his image.