Double or nothing: that was the theme of the president's dazzling speech. Bold, bold, bold -- bold on social security reform, bold on controlling the growth of government, bold on legal and tax reform, bold in daring to mention nuclear energy, bold on social issues including marriage, bold on judges, and bold on foreign policy and the war on terror. Minutes before the beginning of the speech, new National Security Adviser Steve Hadley announced that he had promoted Elliot Abrams as one of his deputies -- Abrams being one of the administration's strongest and most consistent advocates of American strength and the expansion of freedom worldwide.
The speech was long, but not wordy: Its power came not from poetic flourishes, but from the clarity of its message and the firmness of its purpose. And yet the speech was not uncompromising or harsh. Without trimming his conservative principles, the president reaffirmed his commitment to a compassionate approach to AIDS, poverty, and gang violence, and he affirmed a renewed national commitment to defendants in death penalty cases.
Like his first three states of the union, but unlike his fourth, this speech was superbly focused. It was not weighted down with secondary and tertiary initiatives, slipped in by adroit bureaucrats or by poll-minded politicos. There was no striving for effect, no purple passages. It's too often assumed that flowery rhetoric is powerful rhetoric. The reverse is more like it. A determined message delivered in clear, unmistakable words packs more punch than a namby-pamby message wrapped in fine phrases.
The president left no doubt that Social Security will be his supreme priority in this second term -– and this is as it should be. Nothing this president can do at home will have longer and more profound consequences than the creation of ownership accounts. Tax changes come and go: The great tax reform of 1986 was undone in part in 1991 and then again in 1993 and was very nearly unraveled altogether by the year 2000. But the conversion of the unreliable promises of a state pension system into the solid reality of assets in your own hands, protected by the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Bush directly challenged the Democrats' trust-fund myth -– the idea that the system will be okay into the 2040s because the Congress has written a lot of IOUs to itself. And he framed the issue exactly correctly: as one of character and courage against self-delusion and cowardice.
Abroad, the president sent a strong message to the axis of evil and its cadet member, Syria. He expanded the issue with Iran from its weapons to its oppressive theocracy -– and returned to the promise he made in 2002 to stand with the Iranian people against the unelected few who oppress them in the name of religion.
Gently and flatteringly, Bush served notice on Egypt and Saudi Arabia that they must move toward democracy -– and to the Palestinians that they must move away from terrorism. He offered a cogent, credible and convincing account of the connection between tyranny and terror.
On Iraq, the president again underscored the grand difference between him and his Democratic critics: They want an exit strategy -– he insisted on a victory strategy. "We are in Iraq to achieve a result: a country that is democratic, representative of all its people, at peace with its neighbors, and able to defend itself. And when that result is achieved, our men and women serving in Iraq will return home with the honor they have earned." And not before.
Ever since Ronald Reagan invented the tradition, every State of the Union has had its moments of emotion. All too often in the past, these moments were cynically manipulative or unworthy of the high importance of the event. Not tonight. The stories of Safia Taleb al-Suhail and Byron Norwood represented the outermost limits of human courage, suffering, and sacrifice in the public realm.
Michael Barone has aptly compared the Bush presidency to a pulsar: a star that goes dark for long periods and then bursts forth in a sudden spurt of activity. I'll confess: Bush sometimes worries me. There will be periods of weeks or even months when the gravity of government seems to pull him down, when the energy and imagination of the best hours of his government seems to have seeped away. And then there follows a moment like this speech, when this president surges back into action and his government regains its gravity-defying momentum.
It won't always be like this of course. But sometimes it is like this. And that's enough to justify all the rest.
David Frum is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a contributing editor to National Review, a columnist for Canada's National Post newspaper, and a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph in Great Britain and to National Public Radio in the United States.
By David Frum
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online