Monday, January 28, 2008

Presidential fun, then and now

Tonight is George W. Bush's last State of the Union address.

(I'm assuming it's his last. If you suspect he might actually suspend the 2008 elections in a desperate gambit to keep his Unitary Executive operating--and out of prison--after January 20, 2009, you have to also figure he'd go the whole hog, including Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution where State of the Union messages in some form are mandated. But I digress.)

I remember watching Bill Clinton's final State of the Union address, January 27, 2000. He wasn't running again, of course, and he knew that the Republican Congress would eat dirt rather than enact a single one of his ideas--they'd been sitting on most of his federal court nominees for years at that point, for example.

Clinton, nevertheless, was in high spirits:

Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, members of Congress, honored guests, my fellow Americans: We are fortunate to be alive at this moment in history. Never before has our nation enjoyed, at once, so much prosperity and social progress with so little internal crisis or so few external threats. Never before have we had such a blessed opportunity and, therefore, such a profound obligation to build the more perfect union of our founders' dreams.

We begin the new century with over 20 million new jobs. The fastest economic growth in more than 30 years, the lowest unemployment rates in 30 years, the lowest poverty rates in 20 years, the lowest African-American and Hispanic unemployment rates on record, the first back-to-back budget surpluses in 42 years.

Next month, America will achieve the longest period of economic growth in our entire history. We have built a new economy. Our economic revolution has been matched by a revival of the American spirit: Crime down by 20 percent, to its lowest level in 25 years. Teen births down seven years in a row and adoptions up by 30 percent. Welfare rolls cut in half to their lowest levels in 30 years.

My fellow Americans, the state of our union is the strongest it has ever been.

True, some of the achievements he listed next didn't stand the test of hindsight, and some didn't even sound that great--at least to progressives--at the time. But still, turning the deficit into a surplus, education investment up, crime rate down, Family Leave Act passed--not too shabby:

Eight years ago, it was not so clear to most Americans there would be much to celebrate in the year 2000. Then our nation was gripped by economic distress, social decline, political gridlock. The title of a best-selling book asked: America: What went wrong?

In the best traditions of our nation, Americans determined to set things right. We restored the vital center, replacing outdated ideologies with a new vision anchored in basic, enduring values: opportunity for all, responsibility from all, and a community of all Americans.

We reinvented government, transforming it into a catalyst for new ideas that stress both opportunity and responsibility, and give our people the tools to solve their own problems.

With the smallest federal work force in 40 years, we turned record deficits into record surpluses, and doubled our investment in education. We cut crime: with 100,000 community police and the Brady law, which has kept guns out of the hands of half a million criminals.

We ended welfare as we knew it -- requiring work while protecting health care and nutrition for children, and investing more in child care, transportation, and housing to help their parents go to work. We have helped parents to succeed at work and at home -- with family leave, which 20 million Americans have used to care for a newborn child or a sick loved one. We have engaged 150,000 young Americans in citizen service through AmeriCorps while also helping them earn their way through college.

But what I most vividly remember is what came next:

At the dawn of the last century, Theodore Roosevelt said, "the one characteristic more essential than any other is foresight... It should be the growing nation with a future, which takes the long look ahead."

Tonight let us take our look long ahead and set great goals for our nation.

And what followed was a progressive's letter to Santa Claus: Education. Poverty. Health care. Global warming. Patients bill of rights. Gun-safety laws. Campaign finance reform. Minimum wage increase. Paying down--or off--the national debt.

Most of these, of course, were things he'd already proposed to Congress and watched the GOP gleefully block. So freaking what? Clinton went on:

A billion dollars for Head Start.

Connecting all classrooms to the Internet.

Thirty billion dollars to allow up to $10K in college tuition tax deductible for middle class families.

Expanding S-CHIP.

$400 billion to keep Medicare solvent.

What I remember most about this Grover Norquist nightmare wasn't the particulars--it went on and on, bullet point after bullet point--but rather the way Clinton handled himself. The gleam in his eye. The smile. That biting the lower lip and ticking off his points with that modified thumb's-up that made Darrell Hammond a fairly wealthy man.

The point is, Clinton was a lame duck, with the legislative odds stacked hopelessly against him--and yet he was totally in his element, having a ball throwing ideas out there one after the other.

In fact, it occurred to me as I watched him that it might very well be a long time before Clinton was having as much fun as he was having that night.

I rather doubt if the same could be said of George Bush at tonight's address. Deeply unpopular, resentful of disagreement, his very name anathema to the Republican presidential candidates, standing squarely in the Reagan tradition of "government is the problem," what's he got for the go-forward? Tax breaks for the rich and war in the Middle East. And did I mention further restriction of our civil liberties (speaking of which, the FISA vote comes up in minutes)?

My guess is that tonight's speech is a moment Bush will be happy to have over.

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