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State of the Bubble?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, February 1, 2006; 2:59 PM

President Bush's State of the Union address last night was so lacking in novelty or details that it has served as a Rorschach test of sorts for the media.

What's the lead? What does it all mean? There are lots of different answers to that question this morning.

I for one was most interested in whether the speech would originate from within Bush's protective bubble -- where he doesn't have to face ugly realities -- or from without.

Some analysts this morning said they heard Bush publicly acknowledge the country's anxiety regarding his leadership.

But if he did that at all, it was in the vaguest of ways. There was no specific recognition of the difficult problems that have arisen under his leadership.

His glowing descriptions of progress in Iraq are flatly contradicted by the reality on the ground. He spoke of changing the world without acknowledging all the hits our moral standing has taken under his watch. He barely mentioned Hurricane Katrina, and certainly expressed no regrets over his response. He didn't say a word about the botched Medicare prescription drug rollout. And he offered no ideas about clamping down on lobbying abuses.

And most significantly, he showed no sign of having genuinely listened to the growing chorus of critical voices, either in Congress or beyond.

Rather than assertively engage those who disagree with him, he cavalierly dismissed them as head-in-the-sand isolationists, retreating defeatists and protectionists doomsayers.

Not exactly an olive branch.

Here is the text of the address, along with White House memos on American leadership , competitiveness , energy and health .

The Analyses

Dan Balz and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "Coming off his most difficult year in office, President Bush used his State of the Union address last night to try to give his embattled administration a new start, speaking expansively about his aspirations for the final years of his presidency -- but offering a scaled-down blueprint for governing. . . .

"[H]is address lacked the rhetorical lift of some of his best efforts of the past, and the domestic policy agenda, although lengthy, included initiatives that have been around for some time.

"In that sense, the speech was a reminder of how much the war in Iraq has drained the administration's energy and creativity, and how much it continues to define the Bush presidency. . . .

"White House officials described Bush's speech as more philosophical than the typical State of the Union address, but at this point the philafosophical outlines of his presidency are well known. What will count in the year ahead are the results his policies produce. Legislative achievements may help, but what will be even more useful for Republican candidates is a president who has regained the public's confidence. That will take more than one speech."

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "It was an evening for President Bush to confront America's anxieties -- and his own. . . .

"Only a year after Mr. Bush stood in the House, describing in bold terms how he planned to spend the political capital he had amassed in the 2004 election, the president who addressed the nation on Tuesday evening was far less ambitious, his tone noticeably different. . . .

"[I]n acknowledging on Tuesday that Americans face 'a complex and challenging time,' Mr. Bush was doing more than issuing a call for global engagement. He was also acknowledging that five years into his presidency, the citizens of the world's most powerful nation do not feel that their status has brought them security."

Michael Tackett writes for the Chicago Tribune: "George W. Bush made an implicit concession Tuesday night: After five momentous years he has little new to say. . . .

"Bush's supporters see a virtue in his sturdy consistency. When Dan Bartlett, counselor to the president, previewed the speech for reporters, he acknowledged that 'some of it will sound very familiar to you.'

"To one set of ears, that steadiness is comforting. But to his opponents, the repetition has become grating and in some cases seems in apparent defiance of what the military likes to call 'ground truth.' "

Ron Fournier writes for the Associated Press: "The state of the union is fretful. President Bush acknowledged the public's agitated state Tuesday night when he gave voice to growing concerns about the course of the nation he has led for five years. . . .

"In his fifth State of the Union address, Bush sought to balance his usual optimistic message with an odd-fitting acknowledgment that many Americans are suffering beneath a crush of change."

But, Fournier writes: "The problem for Bush is that few of these troubles are new. He's had four years to ease people's pain. . . .

"The president who promised to be a uniter, not a divider, has presided over the hyper-polarization of Washington."

Marc Sandalow writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "President Bush's call for Republicans and Democrats to work together, for America to engage the world and for the nation to quit its addiction to oil will sound to many skeptics like Barry Bonds calling for an end to steroid use in baseball.

"It was not Bush's failure to solve these problems over the course of the first five years of his presidency that required him to highlight them in his State of the Union address, his critics insist; it was Bush's contributions to these problems that elevated each to a matter of significance.

"For Bush to convince an increasingly skeptical public that it should embrace his vision for the nation -- and his agenda for the rest of his presidency -- and to dig his way out from his weak standing in the polls, he will need to demonstrate that his soothing rhetoric is more than just words. Partisanship, stormy international relations and heavy oil consumption have been hallmarks of Bush's tenure thus far."

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Chastened. Deferential. Modest.

"These are not words that have typically described President Bush's agenda or his approach to advancing his ideas, at home or abroad.

"But they capture the distinctive elements of the State of the Union address Bush delivered Tuesday after a grueling 2005 that sent his public approval ratings plummeting to the lowest levels of his presidency. . . .

"It spoke volumes that he now proposed not to remake Social Security but to restudy it, with the appointment of a bipartisan commission to examine the structure of all federal entitlement programs for the aged. Nor did Bush say a word about fundamental restructuring of the tax code, which the administration once envisioned as its next great overhaul after Social Security."

Brownstein wonders how long " the generally conciliatory tone Bush struck will drive the White House political message.

"Many observers believe a better predictor may be the recent speech in which Karl Rove, Bush's chief political advisor, called for a campaign strategy built around defining sharp-edged contrasts with Democrats on domestic security, Iraq and taxes."

Peter S. Canellos writes in the Boston Globe: "After a resolute defense of his plan for victory in Iraq and his spying program, President Bush last night delivered a speech that Bill Clinton would have been proud to give, embracing the global economy and emphasizing progressive action."

But John Dickerson writes in Slate: "Bush was harsher and more partisan than last year."

Bush "telegraphed his punches at the top of the speech" when he framed the choice facing the country as one between "act[ing] confidently in pursuing the enemies of freedom -- or retreat[ing] from our duties in the hope of an easier life."

Writes Dickerson: "Politics is about defining your enemy. That's what the president did in his 2006 State of the Union. But change the tone? This year, there can't have been a person in the room who took that commitment seriously."

One Possible Explanation for all the Contradictions

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek.com: "The State of the Union was a tale of two presidents. One was gracious about his opponents, seeking common ground for the sake of the nation's future. The other accused his critics of being isolationists, pacifists, protectionists and unpatriotic. . . .

"One wanted to extend tax cuts; the other wanted to cut deficits.

"One was determined to promote America as the world leader in science; the other was determined to put strict limits on human embryo research -- restrictions that other countries have rejected.

"Both presidents are of course one and the same: the often inspirational, often self-contradicting, George W. Bush. Democrats frequently mistake this split personality as some kind of giant game of bait-and-switch. But it's more accurate to think of it as the gap between Bush's idealistic self-image as a leader, and his realistic desire to do whatever it takes to win."

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Fact Check Watch

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "Bush strongly suggested that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks could have been prevented if the phone calls of two hijackers had been monitored under the program. This echoes an assertion made earlier this year by Vice President Cheney.

"But the Sept. 11 commission and congressional investigators said the government had compiled significant information on the two suspects before the attacks and that bureaucratic problems -- not a lack of information -- were the main reasons for the security breakdown. . . .

Kessler also chronicles instances of omitted context, questionable rhetorical claims, and odd rhetorical leaps.

For instance: Bush "repeatedly warned against the dangers of 'isolationism,' but the Democratic leadership has not called for isolationist policies, and polls show that the American public has little interest in them."

Peter Wallsten and Maura Reynolds write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush received a roaring ovation Tuesday for his prime-time defense of wiretapping phone calls without warrants. But Bush's explanation relied on assumptions that have been widely questioned by experts who say the president offers a debatable interpretation of history."

Calvin Woodward and Hope Yen write for the Associated Press: "President Bush set energy self-sufficiency goals Tuesday night that would still leave the country vulnerable to unstable oil sources. He also declared he is helping more people get health care, despite a rising number of uninsured.

"Whether promoting a plan to 'save Social Security' or describing Iraqi security forces as 'increasingly capable of defeating the enemy,' Bush skipped over some complex realities in his State of the Union speech."

Andrew Zajac and Mike Dorning write in the Chicago Tribune: "The framing of energy policy was one of several instances in which Bush painted an optimistic picture, glossing over certain details."

For instance: "In addressing the steep rise in federal spending during his administration, which has stirred protests from some followers, Bush chose words that appeared designed to portray him as a budget cutter.

" 'Every year of my presidency, we have reduced the growth of non-security discretionary spending,' Bush told Congress.

"But the president was using a budgetary term that excluded some of the most costly expansions of government spending during his administration."

USA Today offers some context for some of Bush's assertions.

"What Bush said: 'The road of victory' in Iraq will bring U.S. troops home, but only when military commanders determine it's safe. Meanwhile, allied forces are defeating terrorism, and a new democracy is spreading hope.

"Context: The war in Iraq has shown mixed results in the past year. Iraqis voted in droves in three elections. So far, Iraq's political factions haven't formed a government based on the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections.

"Meanwhile, violent attacks continue. The U.S. military reports that insurgents launched more than 34,000 attacks against Americans, Iraqi government forces and civilians in 2005. That's more than 90 per day, and a 19% increase over the previous year."

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek.com: "The president lumped together terrorists in Beslan, London and Iraq, as if they were the same. Yet the only common factor, apart from their bloodlust, is the religion of those involved. Chechen terrorists are hardly fighting against democratic government in their republic. The London bombers, in contrast, were British citizens, not Saudis hankering after the vote.

"This is more than just muddled thinking. It's a sign that five years in office have left the White House straining under the weight of its own contradictions. Iraq was never meant to be a war about terrorists or democracy. It was a war launched to disarm a dictator with weapons of mass destruction. By lumping the two together out of political necessity, the White House seems to have lost focus on the single goal that voters really care about: killing off Al Qaeda."

Tim Grieve lets loose in Salon: "Again and again Tuesday night, the president said words aimed at obscuring hard truths and hiding the harsh reality that his administration has visited upon the American people. Bush talked about the importance of education for young people, ignoring the fact that his administration proposed the first cut in overall federal education spending in a decade. He talked of fiscal restraint and the need to be a good 'steward' of taxpayers' money, ignoring the fact that government spending has exploded on his watch and that he hasn't once exercised his veto to stop it. He talked of the need to wean the nation from its 'addiction' to foreign oil, ignoring the fact that that addiction had deepened as his administration resisted strict fuel-economy standards, proposed cuts in alternative energy programs and dismissed conservation as little more than 'a sign of personal virtue.'

"Bush said that all elected officials must 'never forget, never dismiss and never betray' their pledge to be 'worthy of public responsibility,' neglecting to mention that his administration lied to the American public about the Valerie Plame case and is stonewalling both Congress and the press on the Jack Abramoff scandal."

Advance Notice

Journalists are not exactly transparent about how much advance knowledge they have of the president's speech before he gives it.

As usual, the press yesterday got the full text of the speech an hour before delivery. Bush himself hosted an off-the-record lunch for network anchors.

And some six-and-a-half-hours before delivery, White House counselor Dan Bartlett spoke to the press in great detail about the speech for almost an hour.

Here, exclusively on the Web, is the transcript of Bartlett's remarks.

He explained: "This will be on the record, embargoed until the speech is delivered, because I'll be talking about specific elements of the speech to give you an opportunity to actually get ahead of the game as far as studying up and doing some homework so you can write eloquent, smart, interesting, accurate stories."

Maybe one reason some reporters saw Bush acknowledging the nation's anxiety was that they were told that they would.

"There have been interesting developments, obviously, in the last few years with the conduct of the war, of the challenges we face overseas, also with a dynamic economy not only here in our country, but also vis-a-vis competition in the world, and it's this type of fast-paced change and difficult moments in the war that has, in some instances, left the American people with certain fears and anxieties," Bartlett said in his preview.

"It's also unsettling for the American people to grapple with the rising cost of energy, the rising cost of health care. The dynamic aspect of our economy where jobs are constantly being created and lost -- announcements from GM -- the rising competition of global players on the economic scene, such as China and India, all give a level of angst."

How It Played on TV

Television critic Tom Shales writes in The Washington Post that Bush "acquitted himself fairly well and came off as basically competent."

The speech "was capably presented, well organized and sometimes lofty in tone. But it was also lackluster, ordinary and, most of all, generic. With only a few changes, the same speech could have been delivered a year ago, and maybe it was. Nobody remembers these things from one year to the next anyway."

He adds: "When in doubt, meanwhile, drag out the troops -- a tried and true Bush ploy. Though there is drastic disagreement about how the war in Iraq is going, all agree that American military personnel are doing exemplary service for their country.

"Thus the obligatory guest stars in the gallery, a State of the Union custom begun by master orator Ronald Reagan, were the mother, father and wife of a Marine staff sergeant who died in the line of duty in Iraq. They stood for a prolonged and heartfelt round of applause from those in the chamber. Bush smiled and winked at them."

Alessandra Stanley writes in the New York Times: "It was an entirely different performance from the one the president gave a year ago, when he was so cheerful and cocksure, buoyed by his re-election and the first free elections in Iraq. Mr. Bush addressed a joint session of Congress yesterday after the worst year of his presidency, and the toll showed in his face as much as in his words. . . .

"Mr. Bush spoke confident, even defiant words, but he looked defensive."

More News Stories

Here are the lead stories from Peter Baker and Michael A. Fletcher in The Washington Post; Elisabeth Bumiller and Adam Nagourney in the New York Times; Jennifer Loven for the Associated Press; Carolyn Lochhead in the San Francisco Chronicle; Ron Hutcheson for Knight Ridder Newspapers; Doyle McManus in the Los Angeles Times; and Mark Silva in the Chicago Tribune.

Addicted to Oil

There was certainly one memorable line in yesterday's speech.

Thomas B. Edsall writes for washingtonpost.com: "When Bush declared that 'America is addicted to oil,' he came close to doing what conservatives have accused liberals of doing for years: blaming America first.

"The administration was very proud of the addiction line, promoting it in press briefings and highlighting it in early excepts released to the media. This suggests that Republican research has found the line effective with voters, outweighing any liabilities that result when a politician blames America for some national ill.

"In fact, for an administration that has promoted tax incentives and legislation to boost petroleum production, Bush in his speech sounds almost like Al Gore. If someone had to guess in October 2000 who would deliver a State of the Union address that mentioned hydrogen-powered cars and fuels made from wood chips and switch grass, most people would have picked the then-Democratic nominee."

" Charlie Savage writes in the Boston Globe: "Invoking a vision of an America freed from 'addiction' to Middle Eastern oil, President Bush yesterday joined a series of Oval Office occupants who have planted rhetorical flags in the sands of energy independence.

"In 1974, President Nixon announced a Manhattan Project-style program to end the grip of foreign oil on the American economy, but it fizzled after he resigned.

"Later that decade, President Carter advised Americans to turn down their thermostats and put on a sweater, but his call for conservation invited ridicule.

"Last night, specialists warned that Bush's plans could falter in similar ways, by putting too much faith in alternative-fuel technologies that have been slow to develop since Nixon's day and by having only three more years in office to enforce new priorities after five years of an energy policy devoted to increasing production of gas and oil.

"Bush's remarks were notable for what he did not say, some specialists said. He made no mention of increasing passenger car fuel-efficiency standards, which the automobile industry has resisted."

Math and Science

Here are stories on Bush's math and science initiative from Jonathan Weisman and Amy Goldstein in The Washington Post; and Janet Hook in the Los Angeles Times.

T-Shirt Watch

Clarence Williams and Allan Lengel write in The Washington Post: "Activist Cindy Sheehan was arrested last night after demonstrating in the spectators gallery of the House of Representatives as part of a larger war protest that was held outside the Capitol. . . .

"Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq, opened her jacket to reveal a T-shirt that, according to a supporter, gave the number of U.S. war dead and asked, 'How many more?'

"She was also vocal, said U.S. Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer, and after she ignored instructions to close her jacket and quiet down, she was led out and arrested. Demonstrating in the House gallery is prohibited."

Bill Adair writes in the St. Petersburg Times: "Beverly Young, wife of Rep. C.W. Bill Young [(R-Fla.], said she was ejected from the House gallery during Tuesday night's State of the Union address because she was wearing a T-shirt that said 'Support the Troops -- Defending Our Freedom.' . . .

" 'They said I was protesting,' she said in a telephone interview late Tuesday. 'I said, "Read my shirt, it is not a protest." They said, "We consider that a protest." I said, "Then you are an idiot." ' "

The Scene

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Anne Kornblut write in the New York Times: "When Mr. Bush entered the House chamber on Tuesday night, his latest political trophy -- Samuel A. Alito Jr., newly confirmed and sworn in as a justice of the Supreme Court -- was on full display, a powerful reminder that Mr. Bush can still flex his muscles on Capitol Hill. Justice Alito smiled sheepishly as the president singled him out in the speech. 'It's like a prizefighter showing his belt,' said Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota.

"But the prizefighter has taken more than a few punches in recent months, and Democrats were rowdier than usual. Although Mr. Bush hit as many notes as he could to rally the chamber -- paying tribute to Coretta Scott King, demanding changes from the newly elected Palestinian leadership and a defiant Iran -- Mr. Bush gave Democrats several openings to get the better of him.

"And they took them. When he defended the National Security Agency eavesdropping program, several Democratic members audibly groaned. When he scolded Congress for not passing his Social Security program, Democrats leaped to their feet in cheers, drowning the president out for a long stretch."

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "Samuel A. Alito Jr., barely eight hours into his job as a Supreme Court justice, had to make a series of important rulings as he sat in the House chamber for last night's State of the Union address.

"For instance: How enthusiastically would he applaud for President Bush? (More vigorously than Justice Stephen G. Breyer but less than Justice Clarence Thomas and about the same as the chief, John G. Roberts Jr.) . . .

"It seemed from their frequent conferences that the justices had agreed on some ground rules: Any mention of Iraq or hot domestic disputes were off limits; broad appeals to patriotism were deemed applause-worthy. But there were disputes. When Bush said 'We will never surrender to evil,' the justices conferred briefly. Breyer shook his head, but Roberts overruled him, and Breyer reluctantly stood with his three colleagues."

The Guests

The Washington Post explains who was in the first lady's box last night. Among the guests: "Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jamie Dana and her bomb-sniffing military dog, Rex , who were deployed in Pakistan and Iraq, where she was wounded when a roadside bomb exploded near the Humvee in which they were riding."

Editorial Watch

Washington Post : "Mr. Bush said nothing about the rocky launch of the new Medicare prescription drug plan. Tax reform, once a promised centerpiece of a second term, was nowhere to be found. The president made just a glancing reference to the Jack Abramoff corruption scandal, saying he supported efforts 'to strengthen the ethical standards of Washington.' He defended warrantless eavesdropping, saying that the 'terrorist surveillance program . . . remains essential to the security of America' -- without giving any hint of the serious legal questions surrounding his activities. In all, the speech reflected Mr. Bush's changed political circumstances, and it displayed little ambition to tackle some of America's greatest challenges at home or abroad."

New York Times : "Last night's remarks [about energy independence] were woefully insufficient. . . .

"If Mr. Bush wants his final years in office to mean more than a struggle to re-spin failed policies and cement bad initiatives into permanent law, this is the place where he needs to take his stand. And he must do it with far more force and passion than he did last night."

Chicago Tribune : "We are . . . a nation of common purposes. And in the first minutes of his address, Bush reminded us of our most crucial common purpose. For a president, for a Congress, for each of us in a citizenry of 300 million, the security of this nation is Job One. Without that, our many other common purposes -- the spread of opportunity, the delivery of health care, the education of our young -- cannot survive, let alone thrive."

New York Post : "President Bush issued a noble call last night, in his annual State of the Union Address, for America to step up to the challenges of leadership, both at home and abroad.

Los Angeles Times : "Confidence is an asset, but Bush needs to be more forthright about his setbacks. On the domestic front, the president never seems to be able to explain why so much of his agenda is stalled even though his party controls both houses of Congress."

New Orleans Times-Picayune : "To come back after a disaster of unprecedented scope, greater New Orleans needs bold leadership -- not just from state and local officials but also from the White House. President Bush vowed Tuesday that Americans 'will renew the defining moral commitments of this land.' In fact, he made just such a moral commitment to greater New Orleans in September.

"He did not follow through on it Tuesday. If this region is to thrive again, President Bush will have to push harder for our recovery than he did in his State of the Union speech."

Instapoll Watch

Gallup polled people who watched the address, and found that 75 percent described their reaction as positive, including 48 percent who said "very" positive.

But people who watch the address are such a self-selecting group that those numbers are actually not so great. By comparison, last year 86 percent responded positively, including 60 percent very positively. Four years ago, 94 percent were positive and 74 percent very positive.

CBS News 's instapoll found: "Seventy-seven percent of speech watchers approved, and 23 percent disapproved, of the proposals the President laid out in his State of the Union speech." Last year it was 80-20.

Manimal Watch

The most unexpected line in last night's address has to be Bush's rousing condemnation of human-animal hybrids -- not a major topic on anyone's radar, at least until now.

The bloggers are having a field day here and here .

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