by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
George W. Bush, who has made it his mission to avoid his father's political mistakes, could be poised to repeat them in spite of himself.
His bellicose State of the Union Address on Tuesday, which was long on determination and defiance but exceedingly short on program details and new initiatives, underlined how firmly his course has been set and how little he can or is willing to do to change it.
Indeed, by announcing that the next four years will be very much like the last three, Bush, like his father before him -- president from 1989 to 1993 -- has become a fixed target for next November's elections, a point brought home by an uncharacteristically aggressive Democratic Party response after the president finished his speech.
Bush's father, who loved international diplomacy above all, failed to understand that most voters in 1992 were more concerned about job losses caused by corporate downsizing and overseas competition. He missed the wisdom of Bill Clinton's political adviser, James Carville, who observed succinctly, "It's the economy, stupid."
Bush Senior's defeat that year by Bill Clinton was also made easier by his self-confessed lack of "the vision thing" -- something that would offer his fellow-citizens a sense of national purpose, beyond safely "managing" world affairs and promoting volunteerism in community charities.
In addressing these deficiencies, the elder Bush was hobbled not only by his own preppy aloofness -- a problem the younger Bush takes pains to eschew -- but also by the fact that the yawning fiscal deficits of the Reagan era had emptied the Treasury.
To the fury of his Republican Party's increasingly powerful right wing, Bush Sr. was forced to raise taxes and had nothing new to offer because the cupboard was bare.
Unlike his father, the younger Bush inherited a huge surplus that, as a result of tax cuts and the enormous increase in defence and other spending related to the "war on terror," has been transformed once again into a deficit, a shortfall that now seriously threatens the country's fiscal health.
So depleted are the nations coffers that, "It is actually a cruel hoax to pretend that Washington can afford to do anything new," noted 'The New York Times' on Wednesday. Thus, like his father, Bush has no choice but to run on his record.
"Extraordinarily backward-looking," noted Andrew Sullivan, a conservative commentator for 'The New Republic' weekly about the lack of new proposals in Bush's speech.
"It struck me as a speech that comes out of a political cocoon, from a president who doesn't grasp that he is in fact politically vulnerable, and who intends to run not on what he plans for the future but on what he has done in the past," wrote Sullivan, who praised the foreign-policy sections of the address. "That's a high-risk strategy."
Bush's speech was also notable for its extraordinary stress on foreign policy, which took up the entire first half and constituted mainly a defence of his war on terror and the U.S.-led attack on Iraq.
The president even insisted, despite the total lack of evidence uncovered to date, that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's "programs" for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) constituted a "serious and mounting threat to our country."
Bush said his war against Iraq was responsible for Libya's recent decision to voluntarily dismantle its own WMD programs and for ongoing, although uncertain, negotiations involving North Korea and Iran.
"America is committed to keeping the world's most dangerous weapons out of the hands of the world's most dangerous regimes," he declared.
Although he cited the contribution by 34 other countries of troops to the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq as evidence that Washington had not isolated itself internationally as Democrats have charged, his biggest applause line was red meat for unilateralists, "America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our people."
Bush also insisted that the world was safer as a result of U.S. actions, but also warned against complacency and called for extension of the controversial USA Patriot Act, which is opposed by many libertarians in his own party. Citing terrorist attacks from Casablanca to Jakarta, he noted that "the terrorists continue to plot against America and the civilised world."
The president ended the foreign-policy section of the speech with the kind of "vision" statement -- "America is a nation with a mission ... Our aim is a democratic peace" -- that his father failed to articulate, although his only concrete new proposal was to double funding -- to $70 million -- to the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a private, non-profit agency that provides money and expertise to civil-society, business groups and political parties abroad that the U.S. favors.
On domestic issues, Bush asked to enshrine tax cuts made in 2002; called for enactment of his guest-worker program for otherwise illegal immigrants; proposed private savings accounts for Social Security; offered modest packages for education, and suggested he might support a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriages.
The latter move brought praise from leaders of his core constituency, the Christian Right, but is also certain to fuel the anger of many Republican libertarians, who believe that Bush has unduly increased the power of government to police private activity.
Remarkably, according to the 'Los Angeles Times,' the president appears to be narrowing, rather than expanding, his base as the campaign gets underway.
But the speech was also notable for what it omitted. Bush made no mention, for example, of the ambitious Moon and Mars exploration program he introduced with much fanfare one week ago, a proposal that clearly bombed with a public that is increasingly anxious about the economy.
He also failed to address the environment, global AIDS, and, despite the focus on Iraq and the war on terrorism, the roiling Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the elusive, proclaimed leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist group, Osama bin Laden.
Indeed, what modest new programs he cited prompted handwringing even among some of his strongest supporters.
Victor Davis Hanson, a prominent neo-conservative and frequent dinner guest of Vice President Dick Cheney, for example, worried that Bush's existing projects for tax cuts, war, Middle East reconstruction and drug entitlements "do not add up, but result in rates of deficit spending that are unsustainable."
That assessment is increasingly shared by Republican lawmakers, who have expressed growing anxiety about the huge costs being incurred in Iraq, and a growing consensus that a very expensive but overstretched army needs to be expanded by at least two divisions.
The latter would boost annual defense spending past $500 billion, at a time when eight million people are without jobs.
In that connection, The New Republic's Sullivan said he was "amazed at Bush's lack of any recognition that job growth is lagging behind economic growth."
"There was no statement of concern for those struggling in the economy, no rhetoric of empathy. That surprised me. It leaves a huge opening for the Democrats, who will argue that the president is out of touch."
January 21, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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