The Constitution requires that presidents "from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient."
Tradition has made the annual State of the Union address the primary public venue for such reporting.
As such, the State of the Union address is officially a big deal. And it is always accorded an appropriate measure of attention by the television networks, members of Congress (unless, like, they are bidding to replace the president) and the American people. But some State of the Union addresses are more equal than others. When George Bush addressed Congress in 2005, he did so as the most powerful man on the planet: the reelected commander of a warrior nation that was controlled down to the very roots of its executive, legislative and judicial branches by the president's partisan allies. Even if it was obvious to any serious observer that severe second-term rot had already begun to set in, Bush boldly renewed America's acquaintance with all the bad ideas - neo-conservative military adventuring and free trade abroad, deficit spending and related flights of fiscal fantasy at home - of his tenure.
Nothing was going to change, the president told America. Nothing would get better.
And nothing did. The occupation of Iraq grew deadlier and more expensive, the occupation of Afghanistan grew more unstable, trade deficits grew, structural deficits bloated, the rich got richer, the poor got poorer and America's economy slowly swirled down the drain.
Then came the election of 2006, with its defeat of George Bush's Republican Party and the restoration of Democratic control of the Congress. Even if the Democrats did not provide Bush with the full-bodied opposition that the voted had hoped for, their presence broke the illusion of Bush's omnipotence.
So it was that the president delivered his final State of the Union address last night as a broken man whose partisan allies would not even wear the "I'm a Bush Republican" pins that had been delivered to their offices by a puckish critic of the president and his party.
Even in the face of the humiliation that is a 31 percent approval rating, the president could not muster the humility that might have engendered sympathy.
Instead, he steadfastly stuck by a failed agenda. Yes, there were minor bows to reality, highlighted by his recent recognition that some redistribution of the wealth will be required to slow the arrival of a scorching recession until after this year's elections.
But even as he promoted the economic stimulus package that his aides and congressional leaders had cobbled together, George Bush refused to make the most basic connections with regard to the crisis he has created.
Noting that Bush aides were promising on Monday that the president would offer "no new ideas" in his speech, Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, a Democratic freshman, observed, "That's unfortunate. Mr. President: Our country is in grave economic trouble. We have a housing finance meltdown going on while energy costs spiral up and down. Affordable and accessible healthcare is out of reach to almost 50 million Americans with 6 million alone added during this President's tenure. Our educational system has left far too many children behind, while our bridges are literally falling down in America. Mr. President: our country needs an economic stimulus package that will result in something more than pocket change for most working families. Mr. President: The best American economic stimulus package you could offer the American public is to end this war in Iraq."
Unfortunately, of not surprisingly, Bush declined to take Ellison's advice.
As predicted, the president's last State of the Union speech echoed the empty rhetoric of the speeches that came before it. There was an extended call on Congress to make permanent the tax cuts for the rich that have so skewed the nation's economic balance since Bush secured them. There were attacks on spending by a president who has presided over the dramatic bloating of deficits that are the spawn of unsustainable spending. There were more defenses of free-trade pacts that have harmed workers, the environment and communities in the United States and abroad. And there were more fantastical claims about the successes of the disastrous occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The president would have made news last night if he had said, "I'm sorry. I broke it."
But George Bush never was very good at taking responsibility for his mistakes. So he offered America another order of "the usual."
Unfortunately for him, American has lost its taste for what this president is peddling - and for the man himself.
Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, summed the evening up best when she said, "Tonight's speech is the 'swan song' of a presidency that is ending and will not be missed. President Bush may choose to believe that the state of our union is strong; but under his direction, our economy is flailing, our infrastructure is crumbling, the number of uninsured and underinsured Americans is rising, America's moral and strategic leadership in the world is plummeting, our Constitution is being trampled, and our servicemen and women and their families are sacrificing enormously in an unnecessary war."
With the delivery of this final State of the Union address, Bush fulfilled one of his constitutional duties.
Would that Congress might do the same and begin impeachment hearings.
In the absence of that appropriate response to a failed presidency, we are left with the sad circumstance of State of the Union address delivered by an executive whose tenure is over in every sense save the one that matters most.
As such, the circumstance, while sad for Bush, is sadder still for America.
By John Nichols
Reprinted with permission from The Nation