State of the Union addresses rarely add anything of value to the national discourse. Rather, they are campaign speeches dressed up as major statements of public policy.
Until the arrival of the current administration, however, State of the Union addresses usually did no harm.
That can no longer be said to be the case. Indeed, during the Bush years, these annual exercises in presidential pontification have actually detracted from the debate — sometimes devastatingly so.
This president has used his yearly speeches to misstate intelligence data in order to deceive the Congress and the American people about supposed threats to national security, as Bush did in his 2003 address. And he has repeatedly used State of the Union addresses to foster the false impression that misnamed programs — such as the so-called "Patriot" and "No Child Left Behind" acts — are actually designed to protect and serve the American people.
Tonight, the president will deliver the second State of the Union address of a second term gone awry. His approval ratings are dismal. The majority of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction. And there is a growing movement to censure Bush and Vice President Cheney for abusing their authority, disregarding the laws of the land and undermining Constitutional protections that were designed to preserve basic liberties.
It is the concern about the Bush administration's assaults on freedoms that are guaranteed by the Bill of Rights that ought to weigh heaviest on the president tonight.
Indeed, if there is any one statement that should to be featured in the president's address, it is a response to the demand of U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Middleton, for an explanation of the thinking behind the administration's decision to illegally initiate a program of spying on U.S. citizens — and to maintain that program even after it was exposed by the media and condemned by many in Congress.
"No Administration official who has publicly defended the NSA program in the last week, including the President, has explained why it is necessary to violate the law and the Constitution to effectively fight terrorism," notes Feingold, the steadiest defender of the Constitution in the current Congress. "Instead, the Administration has resorted to a public relations campaign, perhaps because it knows its legal arguments don't stand up. The American people deserve an explanation of why this Administration decided to violate the law and insists on continuing to do so."
Feingold's right. If the president fails to address the issue of warrantless wiretaps tonight, then he will be guilty of delivering another State of the Union address that hinders rather than encourages the honest dialogue that is essential to democracy.
By John Nichols
Reprinted with permission from The Nation