Bush’s ‘State of Legacy’ speech
His last policy address seeks to ease fears over the economy, Iraq war.
PRESIDENT George W. Bush, facing a hostile Democratic-led Congress for one last time, sought to ease concerns over a troubled economy and the unpredictable future of Iraq.
Deeply unpopular, politically weak and increasingly eclipsed by the race to choose his successor, Mr Bush offered no grand visions in his seventh and final State of the Union address on Monday night (Tuesday morning Singapore time).
If anything, his swan song contained familiar ideas and rhetoric that he hoped would keep him relevant in his last few months in office – and, more significantly, define his place in history.
The thrust of his speech was on two issues that could burnish his legacy: the nearly five-year conflict in Iraq and an economy he lost while trying to win that war.
Mr Bush, who has less than a year left in office, acknowledged that growth was slowing, with major worries over the largest housing slump in history, lost jobs and higher prices.
But despite the spectre of recession, he insisted the country’s long-term economic fundamentals were sound.
“As we meet tonight, our economy is undergoing a period of uncertainty…across our country, there is concern about our economic future,” he said.
“To build a prosperous future, we must trust people with their own money and empower them to grow our economy.”
Having prided himself on a long stretch of growth, fuelled by his tax cuts, he is now grappling with a sudden downturn that could wipe out those gains, much to the consternation of the White House.
He urged Congress to act quickly on a US$150 billion (S$213 billion) economic stimulus package, and resist the temptation to “load up” the plan with additional provisions. To do so, he warned, “would delay or derail it”.
Mr Bush, who was interrupted nearly 70 times by applause, also addressed the Iraq war – a main topic of his annual speeches since the 2003 US-led invasion.
He defended the build-up of 30,000 American troops.
“Some may deny the surge is working,” he said. “But among the terrorists there is no doubt. Al-Qaeda is on the run in Iraq, and this enemy will be defeated.” He announced no troop withdrawals, except for a start in the return of the 30,000 sent last year for his “surge”.
He also issued a stern warning to Teheran: “Above all, know this: America will confront those who threaten our troops, we will stand by our allies, and we will defend our vital interests in the Persian Gulf.”
If there was one lofty goal mentioned in his 53-minute speech, it was to do “everything we can” to reach an Arab-Israeli peace settlement before his term ends.
His address also touched on unfinished business: extending laws that allow surveillance of suspected terrorists; approving free-trade pacts with Colombia, Panama and South Korea; and working towards a new international climate change deal.
But none is likely to see light of day, with the President’s approval rating at an all-time low. Also, as political commentators have noted, the window for accomplishing anything in an election year closes in summer, when Congress adjourns and the presidential nominating conventions begin.
“It’s really a State of Legacy address,” said Harvard scholar Debra Decker.
“Bush has attempted to explain his actions in office hoping that, eventually, historians will understand his choices. But the public and his opponents in Congress remain to be convinced.”
Predictably, the Democrats saw the speech as a sideshow highlighting how irrelevant Mr Bush has become.
In the Democrats’ response to the address, Governor Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas urged Mr Bush to work with Congress to help the United States regain its global standing damaged by the Iraq war.
“America’s foreign policy has left us with fewer allies and more enemies,” she said.
“Bush has attempted to explain his actions in office hoping that eventually historians will understand his choices. But the public and his opponents in Congress remain to be convinced.”
HARVARD SCHOLAR DEBRA DECKER