Tonight, the president gives his State of the Union address amid political uncertainty. State of the Union addresses are always important, as they set the tone and agenda for the coming year — both for the president and the party. With the 2006 Congressional elections 10 months away, this one has more riding on it than any other SOTU since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — in part because Republicans are facing a more difficult political environment.
Nonetheless, despite of a handful tough races and poll numbers, Republicans would probably hold both the Senate and the House if the elections were held today. A few seats could shift to the Democrats, but this outlook is certainly an improvement over last September’s prospects, when the Republican majority seemed vulnerable.
Having said that, 10 months is a lifetime in politics, and in order to set the stage for maintaining the majority, tonight’s speech must concentrate on communicating two key messages. First, President Bush must once again stress the connection between the war in Iraq and the war on terror. Second, he must focus on what has been a strong and growing economy for the better part of the past four years.
When it comes to the war in Iraq, Bush would strengthen his cause by identifying a series of milestones to help the American public see the progress being made there, such as the recent successful parliamentary election with its massive voter turnout, particularly among Sunnis. Reaching these milestones of self-governance means the Iraqi government can take on more responsibility, lessening the need for U.S. monetary and military support.
While many Democrats continue to carp and criticize about whether to have entered the war, even Osama bin Laden has declared that “Iraq has become a point of attraction and restorer of [al-Qaeda’s] energies,” only making Bush’s point that Iraq is a critical front on the war on terror. Bush must strongly emphasize this point tonight, and Democrats owe it to the country and the troops to stop trying to have it both ways. Right now, Democrats are trying to have it both ways
The National Security Agency’s surveillance program is a perfect case in point. Despite being briefed on the program, despite the fact that every recent president, including Bill Clinton, has taken a policy position similar to that of Bush’s on the executive’s authority as commander in chief during a time of war, Democrats seem bent on taking a shot at Bush at every opportunity even when national security is involved.
The president needs to clearly state what the NSA program does — it tracks the calls and e-mail messages of terrorists, not ordinary Americans, to and from the United States. Democrats can rail about Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act courts to rally their base, but in this age of disposable cell phones, infinite anonymous e-mail accounts, and other technologies, the president cannot always afford to wait for a court to approve his defense of the American people. This is something the American people understand, even if the Democrats do not.
When it comes to the economy, although we’ve seen months of good news, voters are hesitant and unsettled primarily because of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, high gas prices, and the financial difficulties facing such visible industries as Ford and General Motors. The fact is the economy is strong and healthy, and Bush, who fought hard for his economic tax cut policies over the objections of Democrats, ought to take credit for its successes.
Bush should directly take on the naysayers who constantly characterize the economy as in the dumps and highlight the economic progress of his presidency — four million new jobs created in the past two years, unemployment at its lowest average in the past three decades, a 3.1 percent increase in average weekly earnings over the past year and a 4.7 percent increase in productivity over the past quarter.
The biggest threat to the American economy is the looming tax increases if Congress fails to act to keep current tax rates in place — rates that have led to a booming economy.
If the president is going to push for other new initiatives, it is critical that he establish progress in the war in Iraq and highlight the robust economy as the context in which he will push his broader agenda forward.
Finally, if all goes according to plan, by tonight Judge Samuel Alito will join John Roberts as the newest justices of the Supreme Court seated in the well of the House with his colleagues for the State of the Union. Alito’s presence will be a living reminder of the confirmation hearings that were an unmitigated disaster for the Democrats.
Most Democrats spent their time pontificating rather than questioning — a sorry performance, all in all, although it was perhaps topped by a midnight-hour filibuster threat issued by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) from the Swiss Alps. This guy just doesn’t have a clue.
Tonight’s address gives Bush the opportunity to detail America’s successes in the war on terror and the growth of the American economy on his watch. The American people want to see solutions to their problems, and never is this truer than during an election year. The president has a rare chance to lay out his vision for the final years of his presidency and, by doing so, to strengthen his party as critical midterm elections loom ahead. If he rises to the challenge, the year ahead for Republicans could be better than Democrats would have us believe.