“We Will Not Rest”
By Ben Johnson
FrontPageMagazine.com | 1/29/2008
For a president often regarded as naïve and intellectually underdeveloped, last night President Bush gave the Congress a lesson in the powers of the Executive Branch and of the Bully Pulpit. He again displayed his steel spine and boundless fortitude, but brought them into a new arena. And he taught the chattering classes that, for a man who longed to be “a uniter not a divider,” he may multiply the good he does the nation through further division.
George W. Bush’s final State of the Union Address will not be noted for its eloquence nor ambitious agenda: it should, however, go down in history as one of the few times this president has effectively exercised his ability to go directly to the American people. Ironically for a president so defined by foreign policy, the president’s best performance came in the first half of the address, dedicated to domestic policy. It will also provide an object lesson in how the opposition party should not respond. When Bush humorously underlined the often contentious debates that marked Washington, and when cameras caught Harry Reid’s sour-puss response, it provided a stark contrast of personalities. Likewise, water cooler discussions and talk radio today will focus on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s seemingly disrespectful decision to read the text of the speech rather than listen to its delivery and refusal to indulge the president in unnecessarily frequent spurts of polite applause, and her wooden demeanor – with the exception of her perpetually twitching mouth.
Neither were the Democrats helped by Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius’ vacant and incoherent “rebuttal,” at once too civil to be effective and too dull to be inspiring. Jim Webb this was not.
Bush acknowledged the slowing economy, a message the media had hammered home for months, yet he also went over the heads of network executives to point out his unacknowledged successes: “America’s added jobs for a record 52 months…wages are up…exports are rising…In the long run, Americans can be confident about our economic growth.” Yet in remembering John Maynard Keynes’ dictum – “In the long run, we’re all dead” – and underscoring the economic uncertainty many are facing, he made his most perfect rhetorical pivot since the 2004 State of the Union. (“The terrorist threat will not expire on that schedule.”) He offered two antidotes: a stimulus bill – which he would veto if the Senate passed it laden with pork – and the necessity to make his 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent, noting the cost to the average family if this went undone. (I would have preferred he also added the cost to American business and its likely effect: deepening any coming recession or creating a recession ex nihilo.) One of these objectives will become reality; the other will leave his political opponents, at all levels of the federal government, reeling in the upcoming election. Further weakening his opposition, he volunteered:
Others have said they would personally be happy to pay higher taxes. I welcome their enthusiasm, and I am pleased to report that the IRS accepts both checks and money orders.
The sentiment perfectly connected with the American taxpayer’s view of his own plight and his view of Congressional elitism. Not all populism is on the Left, and not all is false.
He further peppered his speech with crowd-pleasers:
- “We must trust people with their own money”;
- “With all the other pressures on their finances, American families should not have to worry about the federal government taking a bigger bite out of their paychecks”;
- “The people’s trust in their government is undermined by Congressional earmarks”;
- “Expanding consumer choice, not government control”;
- “American families have to balance their budgets, and so should their government”; and
- “If any bill raising taxes reaches my desk, I will veto it.”
And thus he keeps his father’s 1988 campaign pledge.
The true story of the speech is President Bush’s discovery of the veto and his newfound anti-pork barrel crusade. His vow to eliminate $18 billion in spending scattered over 151 wasteful or bloated federal programs harkened back to President Reagan – and his executive order ignoring “any future earmark not voted on by Congress” to a nearly bygone era of fiscal sanity. He again tapped into grassroots common sense, saying, “If these items are truly worth funding, the Congress should debate them in the open and hold a public vote.” It will make his actions hard to oppose.
His proposal should be distinguished from impoundment – a budget-cutting measure abolished by the last insurgent, leftist Congress. Presidents from Jefferson forward could impound, or refuse to spend, monies allocated by Congress. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson refused to allot up to five percent of federal layouts at times during their presidencies. President Nixon raised the ceiling to seven perfect of domestic spending, triggering the Watergate Congress to pass the Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, effectively ending the practice. Although the bill has not yet been tested in the Supreme Court, no administration has forced the case. Neither will Bush. This measure applies only to earmarks not voted on by Congress.
The impoundment ban, in part, led President Gerald Ford to issue a whopping 66 vetoes, many against pork-laden spending bills that would further dampen the economy. So, too, did Bush’s father, issuing 44 vetoes himself. As the most veto-less president in recent memory, Bush-43 has the political capital to further punish an uncooperative Congress without being viewed as the source of gridlock.
Elsewhere, he hit a rhetorical stride. His statement pushing Pell Grants for Kids – a fancy name for parochial vouchers – seemed culled from How to Beat the Democrats, calling on the Left – the pretended champion of inner city minorities – “to help liberate poor children trapped in failing public schools.” It is certainly an issue to be ignored, though not, perhaps, in the 2008 campaign.
Nor will candidates ignore the issue of immigration, wherein the president last night showed his steely resolve to the 70-80 percent of the American people who opposed his last proffered amnesty plan. Even a stopped watch swiftly struck against a hard surface refuses to budge once in awhile. So has the president, to our detriment.
Rather than pan the specter of another McCain-Kennedy-Vicente Fox immigration bill, many have criticized the president for the foreign policy content of his speech. True, he did not unveil new initiatives to curb nuclear proliferation. True, he made more references to Zimbabwe and Lebanon than North Korea. True, his references to Iran were muted and formulaic. And true, his hardest foreign policy darts targeted, not at the Axis of Evil, but the “the purveyors of false populism in our hemisphere.” Nonetheless, the president took the opportunity to communicate the success of the surge to the American people. He noted, “One year ago, our enemies were succeeding in their efforts to plunge Iraq into chaos” and – in a pointed reference to Madam Speaker to his literal and figurative left – the Iraqi people “worried that America was preparing to abandon them.” Instead, he pursued a strategy all his own, and “the American and Iraqi surges have achieved results few of us could have imagined just 1 year ago”:
- “high profile terrorist attacks are down, civilian deaths are down, and sectarian killings are down”;
- “Coalition and Iraqi forces have killed or captured hundreds of militia fighters”; and
- “over the past year, we have captured or killed thousands of extremists in Iraq, including hundreds of key al Qaida leaders and operatives.”
He then sounded the voice of stability and patience that has underscored every aspect of his presidency: “Ladies and gentlemen, some may deny the surge is working, but among the terrorists there is no doubt. Al-Qaeda is on the run in Iraq, and this enemy will be defeated.”
Nancy Pelosi looked depressed throughout the speech, especially the second half, when she looked up at all. Even Cheney seemed to cast a concerned glance in her direction at one point. She had read far enough to know the president had spiked her.
“In the fight ahead, you will have all you need to protect our nation,” he said to an enormous standing ovation. “And I ask the Congress to meet its responsibilities to these brave men and women by fully funding our troops.” He then turned to Homeland Security, battering down the Democratic Congress’ non-feasance in renewing the intelligence community’s “ability to monitor terrorist communications.” “We’ve had time for ample debate. The time to act is now!”
And he again underscored his resolution: “We will not rest until this enemy has been defeated.”
And, as with immigration, he pursued a foreign policy item unlikely to have any discernable benefit: inking a peace agreement that “defines” a Palestinian state by the end of this year. As in the Soviet Union, plans are the one thing the Middle East has never had in shortage.
Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews savaged the speech as dull, a “greatest hits” list of nostalgic promises. It was, however, vastly superior to Bill Clinton’s au revior, when the Supreme Court justices refused to attend, and even Hillary did not answer when he mouthed, “I love you” to her. It was not a rhetorical powerhouse, but it is easy to understand why this speech earned the president universally positive reviews among the American people and 70 rounds of Congressional applause in a 53-minute-long speech.
And is it clear from the president’s demeanor, unlike his predecessor, he could not care less. He remains dedicated to defeating America’s enemies, foreign and domestic.