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Leaning forward: Reflections on the State of the Union

By Jackson Murphy
web posted February 4, 2002

"As we gather tonight, our nation is at war, our economy is in recession, and the civilized world faces unprecedented dangers. Yet the state of our Union has never been stronger."

US President George W. BushThe speech led with the biggest liabilities and moved on. Putting both the recession and war out front showed just how confident this President is. US President George W. Bush is already riding so high in the polls is there any way that he could improve on that? Traditionally Presidents get a bounce in the polls after a State of the Union address, and this will be no different.

The thing that stuck me about the speech is just how much George W. Bush understands the dangerous situation that we now find ourselves. The speech, and I am not sure what the insiders titled it, should be called simply 'Leaning forward." If the last speech Bush gave to Congress was about the phrase, "Let's roll", this is an extension of it. This administration has done just that so far, and obviously will continue to lean forward rather than back, acknowledge the past, but move forward. At its very core it is a path of offense rather than defense. As evidence there was no mention of Osama bin Laden and only one mention of al-Qaida.

Most striking was the forcefulness of Bush's resolve. "We'll be deliberate, yet time is not on our side. I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons." In this he took the burden upon himself and seemed to acknowledge both Bill Clinton's lack of resolve on his watch and what might seem to some as his administrations failure-or at least the failure of the FBI and CIA. At any rate it was out there.

Bush barely dwelled on the past. The last time he went before congress the country was barely on a war footing, there was an enemy government in Afghanistan, and women there were unable to work or attend school. Four months later the interim leader of Afghanistan was in the audience and he made special notion of the interim government's Minister of Women's Affairs.

Most of the speech was war related. He warned that, "Some governments will be timid in the face of terror. And make no mistake about it: If they do not act, America will." He put nations of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea on notice. He called them, rightly, an "axis of evil" using imagery of World War II to underscore the seriousness of the current and future war.

Part of the Let's Roll mentality is that the US is willing to operate wherever it needs to in order to protect freedom. "The man and women of our Armed Forces have delivered a message now clear to every enemy of the United States: Even 7,000 miles away, across oceans and continents, on mountaintops and in caves -- you will not escape the justice of this nation."

At times Bush seemed to frame the issues, then toss the ball in the court of the congress. He told the nation that the deficit would be small and short, only if the Congress would contain itself on the spending front. He asked for Trade Promotion Authority and an Energy Plan and noted that the House had moved on these, but the Senate has not. It left a lingering sense that the Democrats in the Senate are not really bipartisan.

He pulled a bit of a Theodore Roosevelt suggesting that corporations were on notice and better be more upfront and disclose their numbers for all to see. Judging from his focus on the war, I would suggest that the business world not test him on it either. If he was a little bit TR, he was also a little bit JFK. He called for more service to country, asking for an expanded USA Freedom Corps and demanded two years, or four thousand hours, of every American to help their community or country over the course of their lives. September 11th changed the nation and the President has shelved the return to business as usual and instead asked for a nation of actual sacrifice.

Both Andrew Sullivan and Newsweek's Howard Fineman quickly noted that what the speech may really have done is to unveil a new Republican philosophy-a philosophy that takes traditional republican strengths on foreign affairs and tempers the traditional skepticism of government transforming into one of respect for government. Michael Kinsley, editor of Slate.com, on simply described the speech as an outline of "national greatness conservatism."

If there was ever any doubt in the resolve of Bush it is long since past. He is now the driving force and center of the war and has provided a new moral base for the west to operate from. The people trust him and look to that deliberate Texan straight talk now. As a reward he has risen to the task, and truly has become unquestionably presidential.

Few if any State of the Union speeches are remembered for very long. If Bush takes his talk, and walks the walk, this one may have a longer life.

Jackson Murphy is a commentator from Vancouver, Canada. He is the editor of "Dispatches" a website that serves up political commentary 24-7. You can contact him at jacksonmurphy@telus.net.

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