There was a fundamental dishonesty in President Bush's State of the Union address.
The rhetoric, the themes, the pre-speech spin were all orchestrated to portray a president above politics, fighting evil on the planet. But the speech was shrewdly timed to step on the news stories from Iowa and raise a Rose Garden curtain on his own campaign. Politics without fingerprints. And only some 60 million Americans were watching the president get his unfiltered message out.
Such phoniness is not, for the record, a necessary ingredient of election-year State of the Union addresses. As a counter-example, consider President George H.W. Bush's 1992 speech and this moment of candor, "I know, and you know, that my plan is unveiled in a political season. I know, and you know, that everything I propose will be viewed by some in merely partisan terms."
Bush the Elder did something else his son wouldn't do, admit there profound problems in the country that frustrated him. "Now to our troubles at home," the first President Bush said in 1992. "Let me tell you right from the start and right from the heart: I know we're in hard times..."
The patriarch also talked about something unpleasant in the non-political culture, and he did it without pointing partisan fingers or moralizing: "If you read the papers or watch TV you know there's been a rise these days in a certain kind of ugliness: racist comments, anti-Semitism, an increased sense of division. Really, this is not us. This is not who we are. And this is not acceptable."
But my guess is that if there's one State of the Union address Rove and Co. didn't want to emulate, it was that of Bush 41.
It's too bad, because it was a far better speech. He spoke profoundly not just of the victory in Iraq, but of the end of the Cold War. He outlined some domestic plans with specificity and timetables. And he didn't go in for the hokey gimmick of pointing to guests in the gallery.
This year's pre-speech spinners told us that the address had two basic goals, to remind voters that Bush is a busy, serious commander-in-chief making the world safe from evil-doers and to show empathy on the domestic issues that polls show he needs help on.
I think George W. Bush has delivered far stronger performances on both counts.
The first part of his speech, the 'world is a dangerous place' part, sounded bellicose to me. The domestic policy part was workmanlike and cobbled together, much of it old. The new initiatives, immigration reform and a new space program, were unveiled earlier; interestingly, CBS News polling shows that at this point, neither program is popular. The other focus was health care, which stitched together something old, some new, something borrowed and something blue. There wasn't a take-away line or a headline program in that part of the speech.
But Bush has a political quality he shares with Ronald Reagan: he is more popular than his positions. The most recent CBS News/New York Times poll demonstrates this in spades. Less than half approve of how he is handling Iraq; only 41 percent think Bush has the same priorities as they do; only 30 percent think he cares more about ordinary Americans than big corporations; 32 percent think his administration has boosted their taxes.
Yet the president's approval ratings are solid, 50 percent approve, 45 percent disapprove of his job performance. That puts him squarely in the middle of recent incumbent presidents. At this point in 1992, his father had faced approval numbers of 43, disapproval was 47. In January 1996, Bill Clinton's ratings were 49-40.
Perhaps more importantly, polls are finding a solid optimism in the country. The recent CBS News found Americans expect the country to be better off in five years by a two-to-one margin. Recent Gallup polls show 72 percent are very or somewhat optimistic about the economy, far more hopeful than two years ago.
This president, like Reagan and Clinton, unlike Carter and Bush the Elder, seems to understand how to press the 'feel good' buttons for much of the electorate. And that is what he tried to do tonight.
Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, has covered politics and government in Washington for 20 years and has won the Investigative Reporters and Editors, Alfred I. Dupont, and Society of Professional Journalists awards for investigative journalism.
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By Dick Meyer