President Bush distilled the essence of his presidency in this year's State of the Union Address: brilliant foreign policy and listless domestic policy.
Perhaps one should expect some lassitude on the home front. It happens often to presidencies at this stage, and it is both a testament and a curse that George W. Bush's people refuse to leave his side. He inspires loyalty and confidence. But over time, even the best burn out — or worse, lose their capacity to tell the boss, "Sir, that idea stinks."
This year's presidential clunkers included an energy policy filled with stuff that even Jimmy Carter abandoned. Declaring the nation "addicted to oil," the president suggested that a spending-addicted Congress take more of the public's money. He requested a 22-percent increase in clean-energy research for technologies that have been attached to the federal udder for decades — "zero-emission coal-fired plants; revolutionary solar and wind technologies; and clean, safe nuclear energy."
Having adopted the theory that Uncle Sam can become the father of innovation, the president cooed about "cutting-edge methods of producing methanol," and then outlined a plan that would transform yard clippings into motor fuel. The "bold" part was to predict that we'll see ethanol-fueled cars all over the place in about six years — and to recommend that the United States reduce its dependence on Middle East oil by 75 percent over the next 20 years.
It is as if some huckster got the chief executive's ear and told him about the can't-miss investment of the future: cellulose fermentation. Impressed, the president wants everybody to invest. It's like a chain letter, only compulsory.
In the same vein, the president announced an American Competitiveness Initiative that would pour more federal money (that spending addiction again) into scientific research, a research and development tax credit (for "bolder private-sector investment") and 100,000 new teachers. This is Clintonism, pure and simple.
None of this seems conservative. Why, for instance, should taxpayers underwrite energy or scientific research when, by the president's reckoning, the market's ready to jump at these wondrous things right now? Why not let the markets work their own magic, propelled by the boldest of all inspirations, the motivation to get stinking rich?
Recall the Federal Genome Project. This program was designed to harness the genius of the nation's foremost genetic researchers and decode the human genome. Off it sped, spending tens of millions of dollars — only to get beat to the punch by Celeron, a small company that got the job done at less than a tenth of the cost and a small fraction of the time.
The president's speech was equally remarkable for what it did not include: The president didn't mention school choice. He didn't utter the words, "Arctic National Wildlife Refuge." Ditto for "tax reform," "out-of-control spending" and "veto" (other than a disingenuous request for a line-item veto).
On the most visionary domestic idea of this presidency — the long-overdue overhaul of Social Security — he tossed in the towel, recommending a "commission" to study "the full impact of baby boom retirements on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid." We don't need a commission. Here's the answer: Baby boomers will break the bank.
The recommendation seems like an act of surrender. Just imagine the bumper sticker: "Vote Republican. Get Commissions!" There is a bright side, though. The commission plan does seem to concede the point that the Medicare reforms passed a couple of years ago are dogs, and need a big overhaul as well.
The president tried to wrap these initiatives up in a bundle called "the hopeful society" — a phrase almost as infelicitous as the oil-addiction line. To be hopeful is to dream of deliverance from misery or weakness; it is to feel that one has minimal power over one's fate. The sense of helplessness and the plea for white-horse government intervention may explain why Democrats adored these parts of the speech.
Make no mistake: Despite the shortcomings in the speech, George W. Bush is the only figure who counts in American politics. On the seminal issues of national security and global destiny, he positively dwarfs the political opposition.
This is why the timid domestic policy seems so puzzling. George W. Bush, the man who likes big ideas and loathes "miniball," ought to be thriving. Americans want boldness. They want someone who will take a machete to the budget and challenge the old ways with passion. They want policies that acknowledge our native brashness and enterprise, and promise to set it loose on a yearning world.
For now, however, they'll have to settle for dreams of filling their gas tanks with rotted corn stalks.