George Bush finally began his second term on Wednesday night with an address that marked the return of the Bush of the stump, the Bush who was re-elected president three months ago and whom the nation knows well. His State of the Union address underscored that he meant what he said when he ran: Efforts to move against junk lawsuits, protect marriage and reform Social Security are all on the table. America continues as a friend of liberty throughout the world. The speech was marked by an air not of insistence but of persuasion.
George Bush made it clear he does not intend to cooperate with the tradition whereby second terms are all anticlimax enlivened by scandal. He will not be at the mercy of history. He means to continue doing big things.
This was the plainspoken Bush of old. The state of our union is “confident and strong.” We must be “good stewards” of the economy, must “renew” and “update” “great institutions,” will try to make the tax code more coherent and just. Refreshingly, he called for “spending discipline”; he said he wants to “cut the deficit in half” by the time he leaves office.
In the much-anticipated section on Social Security reform the president was expected to aim his remarks at members of his own party who think it doesn’t make sense to risk stepping on the third rail unless you’re desperate to flee an oncoming train. Mr. Bush said the train is bearing down and coming fast: When Social Security began 16 workers supported one retiree, but soon it will be two for every one. He deftly raised and let fall ideas put forward in the past by various Democrats—limiting benefits, increasing the retirement age. He made a case for voluntary personal accounts in a way that seemed clear, simple and costless, although next-day news reports raised questions about how much of the accounts will be kept by each individual investor, which made it all sound complicated indeed. He told Congress everything is on the table, all ideas will be listened to, the process will be “open” and “candid,” any ultimate change must be “wise and effective.”
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Here I raise a question about human nature that I cannot answer. Republicans tend to assume that everyone hungers for more investment accounts to handle. This is because Republicans like personal autonomy and authority, and are good at math. Others might reasonably wonder if life isn’t complicated enough. The beauty of the Social Security system is its almost idiotic simplicity: They take your money from your paycheck and then 40 years later when you’re old they start giving some back each month. Personal accounts are less simple.
Favoring the Bush plan is the fact that it is aimed primarily at the young. When you are just entering adulthood and beginning a career you tend not to find life too complicated because you haven’t already made a thousand big decisions and lived with their repercussions. But I sometimes think of Ayn Rand’s sister, who came from Russia to visit the celebrated author in New York. She walked into an American supermarket for the first time and was overwhelmed: too much choice, a thousand kinds of cereal, doesn’t it all give you a headache? Rand was impatient; her sister came from the land of No Choice, and wasn’t up to the battle. A young person of course would not be overwhelmed by options but revel in them. Still, if, as the president seemed to suggest throughout his speech, gray-haired baby boomers are calling all the shots in America, we’ll see if the gray-haired ones really hunger for more decisions to make.
But in a surprising way for the president the issue is win-win. If he loses in Congress, he lost on a great issue on which his large base will likely believe he was right, and on which history will not be able to prove him wrong. And if he wins, he allows the free market to energize and renew a huge creaky behemoth. My guess? Little Big Man is going to get reform.
In the foreign-policy section the president was markedly modest in tone. The difference between us and our enemies is that we know we have “no right, no desire, and no intention to impose our form of government on anyone else.” Freedom is advancing, subjugated peoples are voting, democracies are being born, we are “witnessing landmark events in the history of liberty.” America will work with “our friends” in the Mideast to “encourage a higher standard of freedom.” The government of Saudi Arabia should become more democratic; the “great and proud nation of Egypt” is capable of showing the way to greater democracy in the region. We “expect” the Syrian government to stop supporting terrorists. We are “working with our European allies” to convince Iran not to develop nukes. We “stand with” the people of Iran. This was gentle but pointed, more specific and less messianic, than the recent inaugural—and therefore less open to misinterpretation. It was more finely calibrated, which is to say it was calibrated.
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The end of the speech offered an unforgettable moment. When the mother of Marine Sgt. Byron Norwood, who gave his life in Iraq, was honored in the balcony, and then leaned down to embrace the woman in front of her, an Iraqi who had lost her father to Saddam, and who had just voted—when that mother embraced that woman it said more than words could about what we are doing and why. Sacrifice brings progress; courage brings deliverance; love born in Pflugerville can liberate in Fallujah. It pierced the heart.
As for the Democratic response, Harry Reid looks and talks like a small-town undertaker whom you want to trust but wonder about, especially when he says the deceased would love the brass handles. Although Nancy Pelosi continues to look startled, even alarmed, her comments are predictable and pedestrian. Both seemed eager not to agree with Ted Kennedy’s recent “Iraq is Vietnam” statements, which more and more seem not just stupid but scandalously so. Absent endorsing radical defeatism, however, Mr. Reid and Ms. Pelosi had little to say. They made Important Sounds. Neither seemed sincere or serious. The president seemed both.