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Jewish World Review Feb. 4, 2002 / 22 Shevat, 5762

Michael Barone

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What America stands for

President Bush's State of the Union speech was magnificent not just as oratory but as national leadership --
GEORGE W. BUSH'S State of the Union speech Tuesday night was magnificent, even better than his superb speech on September 20. It was magnificent not just as oratory but as national leadership.

It was first of all the speech of a commander in chief. It has often been said that Americans will not tolerate a protracted war or one with many American casualties. This has always been wrong: Americans will support a war for a righteous cause over many difficult months and years and with many casualties if their president shows that the war is just and explains his overall strategy and how much progress we are making. Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt did this and were re-elected in two of the highest-casualty years in American history, 1864 and 1944.

In his State of the Union speech, Bush explained where we are in the war against terrorism and where we are headed. With meticulous care, he explained that the training camps in Afghanistan have been shut down, but not the training camps elsewhere. He explained that American forces are now helping to fight terrorism in Somalia, Bosnia, and the Philippines.

And he set a new course for the war. "Our second goal is to prevent regimes that sponsor terror from threatening America or our friends and allies with weapons of mass destruction. He named North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, saying they form "an axis of evil." And "all nations should know America will do what is necessary to ensure our nation's security."

In other words, we will work to undermine the regime of the mullahs in Iran and to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. As JWR's Michael Ledeen has pointed out, Bush thus settled the differences in his administration on how we should deal with Iran and Iraq. The war on terrorism has seemed to be in a lull: Activity in Afghanistan is limited, and American efforts elsewhere are not overwhelming. But Bush made it plain that this is only a lull before a storm. The Iranian mullahs and Hussein surely understood what Bush meant: He seeks to destroy their regimes. The American people henceforth are on notice as well. Some time before Bush delivers his next State of the Union address, there will be major changes, changes for the better, in their part of the world.

Also on notice are America's Democratic politicians. With the important exception of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, they are leery of going after Iraq. Instinctively, they incline to diplomatic rather than military solutions. Going after Iraq is seen as extremist. From the writings of Al Gore's chief foreign policy adviser, Leon Fuerth, we can be pretty confident that a President Gore would not have chosen, as Bush seems to have, to go after Iraq. But however reluctant the Democrats would be to initiate such action, they are, in my judg ment, likely (probably with a few exceptions) to support taking the war against terrorism to Iraq. Their support of the war so far has been sincere and heartfelt. They know that Bush has the people on his side; polls have consistently showed that 70 percent of Americans favor taking on Iraq. They know that they cannot deny that Hussein is dangerous and not amenable to compromise. So they will go along and keep any misgiving to themselves.

So will almost all our allies or coalition partners. "Some governments will be timid in the face of terror," Bush said. "And make no mistake about it: If they do not act, America will." When Bush says "make no mistake," he means it. When the United States shows determination, others do what they would never have done on their own. We have seen that with President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan. We have seen that with France and Germany and others. We will see it again.

Bush also set out, more clearly and vividly than he has before, what America stands for in its war against terrorism. We stand for "freedom," he said over and over again. And he listed "the non-negotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women, private property, free speech, equal justice, and religious tolerance." Using the language of the campus protesters of his youth ("non-negotiable demands"), he set forth a list of freedoms that appeals to all segments of the American electorate: economic conservatives (limits on the power of the state, private property), feminists (respect for women), advocates of civil rights (equal justice), religious conservatives and nonbelievers (religious tolerance). Bush did in this speech what Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill did when they proclaimed the Four Freedoms in the Atlantic Charter of August 1941; he told Americans and the world what we stand for.

Bush devoted most of his speech to the war. But he also masterfully framed the issues in domestic politics, invoking bipartisanship even as he advanced his own policies. He unflinchingly promised budget deficits and urged Congress to hold down spending. This provides him a basis for what he did last summer on the farm bill and last fall on domestic spending: use his threat of a veto to lay down markers for appropriators that they will dare not exceed. The appropriators don't like it, but they are not ready for a public fight with a wartime president with an 80 percent job approval rating. He demanded that the Senate pass a stimulus package, trade promotion authority, and an energy bill–measures that Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has kept from the floor. Daschle already knows that his decision to block the stimulus package was a political loser. In the recent ABC-Washington Post poll, for example, Republicans led Democrats 48 to 39 percent on improving the economy. So last week, Daschle dropped his insistence on a Democratic version of healthcare finance for the unemployed and all but pleaded for a compromise stimulus package. He knows that on high-visibility items he dare not fight the president.

Bush sounded like the Democrats on some issues. He called for a patients' bill of rights and a Medicare prescription drug benefit. But he seems likely to use his veto threat to insist on his versions. He responded, without saying so, to the Enron collapse by calling for new safeguards for 401(k)'s and stricter accounting standards and tougher disclosure for corporations, and said corporate America must be "held to the highest standards of conduct." So much for Democrats' attempts to use Enron to batter him. And Bush raised one issue that many congressional Republicans wish he would forget: individual investment accounts for Social Security. But Bush's endorsement of "personal retirement accounts for younger workers who choose them" is good politics as well as good policy. Democrats this fall will be trying to scare old people into believing the Republicans will take their Social Security away. Republicans would be well advised to tell young people that they need something better than the current system.

In this 48-minute speech, Bush did more than talk about the war and domestic issues; he talked about the national character. "After America was attacked, it was as if our entire country looked into a mirror and saw our better selves,'' he said. "We were reminded that we are citizens with obligations to each other, to our country, and to history." This was the theme of Bush's August 2000 acceptance speech. He called on citizens to donate 4,000 hours–two years' work time–to others. He announced a USA Freedom Corps, an expansion of Bill Clinton's AmeriCorps program that sends low-pay volunteers into jobs with charitable and community organizations. And, again echoing a campaign theme, he insisted, "For too long our culture has said, 'If it feels good, do it.' Now America is embracing a new ethic and a new creed: 'Let's roll.' "

In other words, rather than a hedonistic, lethargic, ever-demanding population, we should be a giving, duty-doing, proactive citizenry. Americans in the Clinton years believed the economy was advancing but the culture was deteriorating. Bush tells us we can do–we have been doing–better. It was a call to duty and to alertness that Clinton, the shirker of duty and feeler of pain, could never have convincingly issued. Bush has moved away from the economic conservatism and cultural conservatism of the recent past to a conservatism as muscular as Theodore Roosevelt's and as compassionate as the faith-based charities he took care to mention. Americans are determined to prosecute the war on terrorism, but most have been puzzled about what they can do personally. Bush has pointed them toward answers.

It has been noted that George W. Bush has appeared on television news programs since September 11 less than his leading advisers. Like Franklin Roosevelt, who delivered only a handful of Fireside Chats during World War II, he has carefully rationed his presence and has made his words count when he finally delivers them. For some weeks, it has been unclear where the war on terrorism is going, where domestic policy is headed, what the war tells us about American character, what ordinary citizens can do. In 48 minutes in the House chamber, George W. Bush told us all those things, in clear and graceful language, with obvious sincerity and heartfelt force. The war has just started, but he is already a great war leader.

Michael Barone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2002, Michael Barone