Fallows@Large January 2008

State of the Union: Post Mortem

Bush's 2008 State of the Union address, annotated by The Atlantic's James Fallows

The world’s attention has moved quickly past President Bush’s final State of the Union Address, and I will do the same. While the speech was under way, I was taking copious line-by-line notes. How can he say that?? Ah, look how he maneuvered the Democrats into applauding for this.

Read previous State of the Union addresses annotated by James Fallows:

State of the Union 2007
"When talking about domestic policy, his words and ideas were sometimes interesting—but everything about his presentation said, 'I am bored.'"

State of the Union 2006
"As a matter of rhetoric and political positioning, this was an effective speech."

State of the Union 2005
"This was a startling inaugural address. The surprise was not its style or delivery..."

State of the Union 2004
"Much more than the president's typical speeches, parts of this one are structured as actual arguments, or responses to criticisms of his policy."

After previous State of the Union addresses, I’d appended nearly all of these blow-by-blow accounts. This time, there’s no point – we’ll never hear this kind of speech from George W. Bush again, and I’ve added a limited number of illustrative comments.

The main thing to be said about this speech is that it was a big surprise—and not in a good way. Only three times in the last 50-plus years has a president given a final State of the Union address knowing, in the way Bush did, that it was his final address.  These were, of course, Dwight Eisenhower in 1960; Ronald Reagan in 1988; and Bill Clinton in 2000.  (Inside-baseball detail: Eisenhower actually gave a bonus, “final-final” State of the Union address, a week before John Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. Bush could theoretically do the same thing a year from now, before he sees President-elect McCain or Clinton or Obama etc sworn in. Little in Bush’s body language suggested that he is rarin’ for that chance; and even for Eisenhower, the 1960 speech, when he knew he was leaving but didn’t know who was coming next, was the more gracefully valedictory address.)

From the archives:

The Forgotten Homefront
It is startling how out-of-date and out-of-touch our official politics has become. "The State of the Union address has evolved into the main kabuki-like ceremony in our national politics." By James Fallows

On those three previous occasions – Ike ’60, Reagan ’88, Clinton ’00 – the presidents appeared to be trying for something a little different from the standard State of the Union blather of legislative ambitions and topic-sentence comments about the world. (“And turning now to agricultural policy…”) In previous reports I’ve spelled out the reasons why these addresses are often so hard for citizens to listen to – and even harder for a president’s staff to put together. Summary of the problem: every part of the government is scheming to get a sentence in the speech that will justify its budget requests for the next year, so barring a miracle the speech becomes very long and very catalogue-like. The “farewell” speeches are long and cataloguey too – Clinton’s ran 89 minutes! – but these last three had more coherent thematic shape than the same president’s other speeches, and they were quite consciously designed to steer the historians in the right direction in their understanding of the era coming to its end.

(This was true even of Ronald Reagan’s 1988 speech, which began by denying that it cared about the historians at all:

Mr. President, and distinguished members of the House and Senate, when we first met here seven years ago—many of us for the first time—it was with the hope of beginning something new for America. We meet here tonight in this historic Chamber to continue that work. If anyone expects just a proud recitation of the accomplishments of my administration, I say let's leave that to history: we're not finished yet. So my message to you tonight is, put on your work shoes—we're still on the job. )

((And by the way: to illustrate the weird eloquence of Eisenhower in his 1960 speech, what about this !!:

The fissure that divides our political planet is deep and wide.
We live, moreover, in a sea of semantic disorder in which old labels no longer faithfully describe.
Police states are called "people's democracies." Armed conquest of free people is called "liberation." Such slippery slogans make more difficult the problem of communicating true faith, facts and beliefs.
We must make clear our peaceful intentions, our aspirations for a better world. So doing, we must use language to enlighten the mind, not as the instrument of the studied innuendo and distorter of truth.
And we must live by what we say.

Studied innuendo and distorter of truth!  Whoa!))

The point is, this time Bush didn’t even try. This was like a speech he might have given in Year Three of a standard presidential term. First half of the speech on domestic policy; then, after the standard creaky transition, second half about foreign policy, including Iraq.

(Creaky transition, if you’re interested: “This is the business of our nation here at home. Yet building a prosperous future for our citizens also depends on confronting enemies abroad and advancing liberty in troubled regions of the world.” When speechwriters aren’t trying, they plug in something of this sort: “America cannot be strong abroad unless it is strong at home. And therefore tonight I say...” and so on)

Then the long ponderous list of legislative initiatives, and the similar arguments about Iraq that would be equally suitable for a Congressional subcommittee hearing. Then – tacked-on sounding in the delivery, and even more obviously tacked-on in the written text – the big finish, about the alleged “theme” of the speech, “trusting the people.” The best-known of the writers who have helped President Bush express his message, Michael Gerson, said on some talk show that he thought the speech had one coherent theme, trusting the people. Puh-leeze – maybe he was just being gracious to his successors. (“I thank the Congress for approving a good agreement with Peru. And now I ask you to approve agreements with Colombia and Panama and South Korea.” Thematic!) Yes, the word “trust” is dotted throughout the speech. But no one will ever look at this document – as they will look at, for instance, Bush’s second inaugural address, or the State of the Union that followed that three years ago, or his magnificent speech to a Joint Session of Congress nine days after the 9/11 attacks – and say: This was a speech to remember.

I will say this for the president: he has learned to be a much, much more accomplished formal speaker than he used to be, and congratulations to him for that. Not every president does so.

And now, in full awareness that this is the last such treatment of a George W. Bush State of the Union address, some notes:



THE PRESIDENT: Madam Speaker, Vice President Cheney, members of Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow citizens: Seven years have passed since I first stood before you at this rostrum. In that time, our country has been tested in ways none of us could have imagined. We faced hard decisions about peace and war, rising competition in the world economy, and the health and welfare of our citizens. These issues call for vigorous debate, and I think it's fair to say we've answered the call. Yet history will record that amid our differences, we acted with purpose. And together, we showed the world the power and resilience of American self-government. [Some place in every SOU speech, the president has to say “And so this evening, the state of the union is….” followed by some synonym for  “good.”  “Strong,” “resolute,” “challenged but determined,” etc. I suspect that “cautiously optimistic” wouldn’t cut it.  Usually the magic phrase appears in the first minute of the speech, or the last minute. Bush took the last-minute approach.]


All of us were sent to Washington to carry out the people's business. That is the purpose of this body. It is the meaning of our oath. It remains our charge to keep.

The actions of the 110th Congress will affect the security and prosperity of our nation long after this session has ended. In this election year, let us show our fellow Americans that we recognize our responsibilities and are determined to meet them. Let us show them that Republicans and Democrats can compete for votes and cooperate for results [Yeah, yeah. No one in the hall is believing this.] at the same time. (Applause.)

From expanding opportunity to protecting our country, we've made good progress. Yet we have unfinished business before us, and the American people expect us to get it done.

In the work ahead, we must be guided by the philosophy that made our nation great. As Americans, we believe in the power of individuals to determine their destiny and shape the course of history. We believe that the most reliable guide for our country is the collective wisdom of ordinary citizens. And so in all we do, we must trust in the ability [To give them credit: this is the set-up for the “theme” of the speech. See next paragraph too.] of free peoples to make wise decisions, and empower them to improve their lives for their futures.

To build a prosperous future, we must trust people with their own money and empower them to grow our economy. As we meet tonight, our economy is undergoing a period of uncertainty. America has 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. At kitchen tables across our country, there is a concern about our economic future. [At this point I realized – the speech really is going to be all about the economy, for quite a long time, before getting to Iraq etc.]

In the long run, Americans can be confident about our economic growth. But in the short run, we can all see that that growth is slowing. So last week, my administration reached agreement with Speaker Pelosi and Republican Leader Boehner on a robust growth package that includes tax relief for individuals and families and incentives for business investment. The temptation will be to load up the bill. That would delay it or derail it, and neither option is acceptable. (Applause.) This is a good agreement that will keep our economy growing and our people working. And this Congress must pass it as soon as possible. (Applause.)

We have other work to do on taxes. Unless Congress acts, most of the tax relief we've delivered over the past seven years will be taken away. Some in Washington argue that letting tax relief expire is not a tax increase. Try explaining that to 116 million American taxpayers who would see their taxes rise by an average of $1,800. Others have said they would personally be happy to pay higher taxes. I welcome their enthusiasm. [Delivered nicely] I'm pleased to report that the IRS accepts both checks and money orders. (Laughter and applause.)

Most Americans think their taxes are high enough. With all the other pressures on their finances, American families should not have to worry about their federal government taking a bigger bite out of their paychecks. There's only one way to eliminate this uncertainty: Make the tax relief permanent. (Applause.) And members of Congress should know: If any bill raises taxes reaches my desk, I will veto it. (Applause.)

Just as we trust Americans with their own money, we need to earn their trust by spending their tax dollars wisely. [Two problems with this sentence. One: the creakiest sort of transition, relying on the “just as.” Two: oh sure! This is what the current Congress will be known for???] Next week, I'll send you a budget that terminates or substantially reduces 151 wasteful or bloated programs, totaling more than $18 billion. The budget that I will submit will keep America on track for a surplus in 2012. American families have to balance their budgets; so should their government. (Applause.)

The people's trust in their government is undermined by congressional earmarks—special interest projects that are often snuck in at the last minute, without discussion or debate. Last year, I asked you to voluntarily cut the number and cost of earmarks in half. I also asked you to stop slipping earmarks into committee reports that never even come to a vote. Unfortunately, neither goal was met. So this time, if you send me an appropriations bill that does not cut the number and cost of earmarks in half, I'll send it back to you with my veto. (Applause.) [All the Democrats are thinking: what about the earmarks over the previous seven years?]

And tomorrow, I will issue an executive order that directs federal agencies to ignore any future earmark that is not voted on by Congress. If these items are truly worth funding, Congress should debate them in the open and hold a public vote. (Applause.)

Our shared responsibilities extend beyond matters of taxes and spending. [Another creaky “best we can do at the moment” transition.] On housing, we must trust Americans with the responsibility of homeownership and empower them to weather turbulent times in the housing market. My administration brought together the HOPE NOW alliance, which is helping many struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure. And Congress can help even more. Tonight I ask you to pass legislation to reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, modernize the Federal Housing Administration, and allow state housing agencies to issue tax-free bonds to help homeowners refinance their mortgages. (Applause.) These are difficult times for many American families, and by taking these steps, we can help more of them keep their homes.

To build a future of quality health care [on the other hand: no transition at all!], we must trust patients and doctors to make medical decisions and empower them with better information and better options. We share a common goal: making health care more affordable and accessible for all Americans. (Applause.) The best way to achieve that goal is by expanding consumer choice, not government control. (Applause.) So I have proposed ending the bias in the tax code against those who do not get their health insurance through their employer. This one reform would put private coverage within reach for millions, and I call on the Congress to pass it this year. (Applause.)

The Congress must also expand health savings accounts, create Association Health Plans for small businesses, promote health information technology, and confront the epidemic of junk medical lawsuits. (Applause.) With all these steps, we will help ensure that decisions about your medical care are made in the privacy of your doctor's office—not in the halls of Congress. (Applause.)

On education, we must trust students to learn if given the chance, and empower parents to demand results from our schools. In neighborhoods across our country, there are boys and girls with dreams—and a decent education is their only hope of achieving them.

Six years ago, we came together to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, and today no one can deny its results. Last year, fourth and eighth graders achieved the highest math scores on record. Reading scores are on the rise. African American and Hispanic students posted all-time highs. (Applause.) Now we must work together to increase accountability, add flexibility for states and districts, reduce the number of high school dropouts, provide extra help for struggling schools.

Members of Congress: The No Child Left Behind Act is a bipartisan achievement. It is succeeding. And we owe it to America's children, their parents, and their teachers to strengthen this good law. (Applause.)

We must also do more to help children when their schools do not measure up. Thanks to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships you approved, more than 2,600 of the poorest children in our Nation's Capital have found new hope at a faith-based or other non-public school. Sadly, these schools are disappearing at an alarming rate in many of America's inner cities. So I will convene a White House summit aimed at strengthening these lifelines of learning. And to open the doors of these schools to more children, I ask you to support a new $300 million program called Pell Grants for Kids. We have seen how Pell Grants help low-income college students realize their full potential. Together, we've expanded the size and reach of these grants. Now let us apply that same spirit to help liberate poor children trapped in failing public schools. (Applause.)

On trade, we must trust American workers to compete with anyone in the world and empower them by opening up new markets overseas. Today, our economic growth increasingly depends on our ability to sell American goods and crops and services all over the world. So we're working to break down barriers to trade and investment wherever we can. We're working for a successful Doha Round of trade talks, and we must complete a good agreement this year. At the same time, we're pursuing opportunities to open up new markets by passing free trade agreements.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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