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Failed State

There is very little wrong with the economy, and Congress needs to act immediately to fix it.

That was the peculiar logic of President Bush’s perfunctory discussion of the nation’s economic problems in last night’s lackluster State of Union Address. At a time when many Americans fear losing their jobs, their health insurance, and even their homes, Bush devoted only 149 words to a discussion of the downtown and his proposals to pull the country out of it. Remarkably, not one of those words was the “u” word--unemployment--or the “s” word--stimulus--much less the dreaded “r” word--recession. Nor was there any recognition that the nation faces structural economic problems, such as persistent poverty and growing inequality, or even the cyclical problems that the Republican presidential candidates, particularly Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, have acknowledged.

Instead, Bush addressed Americans’ economic anxieties with a weird point-counterpoint paragraph structure. For instance, he began by saying: “As we meet tonight, our economy is undergoing a period of uncertainty. America’s added jobs for a record 52 straight months. But jobs are now growing at a slower pace. Wages are up, but so are prices for food and gas. Exports are rising, but the housing market has declined.”

This was scarcely an exercise in empathy towards anxious Americans, and it certainly isn’t an explanation of what is wrong with the economy. There was no mention of what caused the collapse of the housing market, how it affects American families’ finances, nor how the “uncertainty” spread to the credit system generally, not only nationally but internationally as well.

Sure, I have a bias here, but compare last night’s speech with the tour de force of analysis and prescription that Bill Clinton delivered to a joint session of Congress in February, 1993, shortly after he took office. Remarkably, Clinton rewrote the text that a team of speechwriters (including me) had drafted the night before and then extemporized about a quarter of the speech while addressing the Congress and the country. Seven years into his presidency, Bush, the first MBA President, still declines to deliver any explanation of economic problems other than his sloganeering that taxes are bad, regulation is bad, and globalization is good.

So I’m not counting Bush’s pitch to continue his tax cuts as part of his discussion of--well, what can we call it? "The Great Uncertainty"? He said much the same things that he has said at every stage of the business cycle and used the same tricky techniques. Not extending his tax cuts is the same as raising taxes. The tax cuts benefit 116 million people, even if some get enough to buy a Hummer and others get enough to buy a hubcap. The tax cuts average $1,800, which, if you stop to think, means that some of those 116 million people must be getting next to nothing. Continuing the tax cuts for years to come, Bush seemed to suggest by the sequence of his argument--he talked about this right after the “uncertainty”--will keep the economy growing this year.

Turning to national security issues, Bush also used familiar arguments for familiar ends. As he usually does, he discussed the war in Iraq only after discussing less controversial conflicts, such as the war in Afghanistan and the fight against international terrorism. By implication, the war that Americans overwhelmingly oppose is part of a larger effort that Americans overwhelmingly support. But Bush used one new and disturbing phrase to describe the American involvement that he envisions in Iraq after he leaves office: “a protective over-watch mission.”

One other phrase that he’s used before still sounds alien to American ears: “We are engaged in the defining ideological struggle of the 21st century. The terrorists oppose every principle of humanity and decency that we hold dear.” But, back in the Cold War, American presidents rarely, if ever, said that we had an “ideology”--that was something the Soviets and their allies had. We had freedom, a faith, or a philosophy. So why not talk about “a battle of ideas” or a “philosophical conflict”? Such phrases sound more like us and less like our adversaries.

Last night was Bush’s last chance (save, perhaps, for a farewell address from the Oval Office next January) to tell the story of a presidency where Americans briefly came together in response to a terrorist attack but later came apart about almost everything else. Instead, he gave a speech of Clintonian length but not Clintonian quality. Instead of explicitly criticizing Bush’s record, the Democratic response by Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius declared that the people are more united than the politicians. It was a dramatic sign that Barack Obama is already the rhetorical leader of the Democratic Party. Bush is being ushered offstage without even one last dramatic soliloquy.

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton from 1992 through 1994. He is the author of Love the Work, Hate the Job: Why America's Best Workers Are Unhappier than Ever, to be published in June by John A. Wiley and Sons.

By David Kusnet