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State of the Union - One Listener's Reaction
January 30, 2002
by Scott Alexander

After a shaky start a little over a year ago when many people were questioning his qualifications and his very legitimacy, most Americans now agree that Bush has grown into his job and increased in stature, especially after "hitting the trifecta" of war, recession and national emergency, as he jokingly put it shortly after September 11.

Now enjoying the highest approval ratings of any President in history (over 80% according to some polls), Bush delivered a rousing State of the Union address to a cheering audience, never once voicing the expectation or even the hope that the "war on terror" would end someday, instead bravely reminding us that the "war" has just begun, referring to "tens of thousands of terrorists still at large" (a rather high number security experts are already questioning), naming three countries he views as threats (North Korea, Iraq and Iran), promising strikes (apparently pre-emptive this time) against any country that threatens America, and even working in a plug for his impossible dream (and the defense industry's wet dream) of a missile shield - a controversial proposal which was one of the few lines that did NOT get a standing ovation during his speech.

About three-quarters sabre-rattling with a just the right amount of fear-mongering thrown in, Bush's State of the Union address had the whole crowd clapping and rising to its feet again and again, except for rare occasions when the Democrats failed to rise.

When not talking about war, Bush was upbeat and vague, the better to be uncandid. On the topic of the economy, he said his strategy can be summed up in just one word - "jobs" - but instead of actually telling us what he would do to create more jobs he shamelessly plugged his favorite programs such as corporate welfare (code-named "economic stimulus") and Republican-style wealth redistribution from the poor to the rich (those same old "tax cuts" where 90% of the cut went to the richest 1% of the nation).

He said reassuring things about helping our seniors ("prescription drug benefits") and educating our children ("leave no child behind"), but people who have read the fine print in his proposals for these areas were probably not impressed. Bush came out in favor of energy independence and even conservation (apparently learning from Cheney's blunder last year back around the time of his six top-secret energy-policy meetings with energy hedge-fund manager Ken Lay, when the VP dismissed conservation as a mere sign of personal virtue, rather than a basis for a sound energy policy).

However, Bush still didn't say whether he had finally come around to a long-term solution like the renewable energy sources the rest of the world is adopting (such as Iceland, which plans to become 100% energy independent within a generation), or if he was still stuck on his oil buddies' stopgap solution of plundering the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve (which, as we now know, holds only a piddling 6 months' worth of oil, if that much).

Bush made many inspiring allusions to our country's "freedom," probably thinking that if he could just say the word enough times then he could make us all forget that he and his Attorney General, slavery apologist and habeas-corpus enemy John Ashcroft, have paradoxically twisted September 11 into an excuse to pass the oddly-named and probably unconstitutional USA PATRIOT Act, which attempts to take away some of our most cherished freedoms, including freedom from secret detention and trial, freedom from search and seizure without a warrant, and freedom from government eavesdropping on private communications or attorney-client conversations.

Without uttering the name of our nation's biggest bankruptcy and his own biggest bankroller, the President blamed the mushrooming Enron scandal entirely on the accountants (calling for stricter fiduciary controls and more-flexible 401(k) plans), and not at all on the hundreds of politicians and regulators who were bribed and coerced to rewrite our laws and look the other way while Bush's top campaign contributor siphoned off billions of dollars from our country's investors, energy consumers, workers and future retirees via the offshore banking network (a network which the previous President had quite rightly clamped down on, Bush later inexplicably eased up on, and which Al Qaida and Ken Lay and assorted drug dealers continue to use for stashing and laundering their dirty dollars).

Although no details were forthcoming in the State of the Union address itself, the fine print in Bush's proposals for corporate welfare ("economic stimulus") and bottom-up wealth redistribution ("tax cuts") still probably includes an inexplicable $254 million giveaway of taxpayers' money to none other than Enron, to go along with the nearly $400 million in "economic stimulus" Enron has already received as a reward for not paying income taxes in four out of the last five years.

Some people, noticing that last year Bush was pushing tax cuts for the wealthy and corporate welfare for tax-avoiding companies because of the SURPLUS and now this year he's pushing it because of the DEFICIT, have started to suspect that this one-size-fits-all method of funneling all the money to the rich is just a repeat of Reagan's "supply-side economics" or Bush Senior's "voodoo economics" under another name - now called, in honor of Bush's number-one backer, "Enronomics."

Aside from his specific proposals for giving the military a pay raise and the defense contractors a pie-in-the-sky "Star Wars" boondoogle, there was one other specific proposal Bush made: that all Americans should consider donating two years or "four thousand hours" to serving their country, under the auspices of a program dubbed the "Freedom Corps." Apparently his speechwriters have finally realized that when times are tough, 'tis nobler to ask people to make useful sacrifices rather than to ask them to go shopping and traveling. Bush helpfully suggested that retired doctors and nurses could volunteer for the Freedom Corps, perhaps as a way of saving some money on homeland security, and Americans young and old could join up and spread our "compassion" around the world.

After Bush's inspiring speech, a friend asked me what I thought. "Sounds like a great country," I said. "I'd like to go there sometime." Bush's speech was rousing and served its purpose of rallying the cheering audience (perhaps a skill he learned from his days as a male cheerleader at prep school), but it was short on specifics and honesty.

Listening to Bush's speech and the excited audience response, one might easily come to understand how danger and decline can unify a nation behind its leader. When a country is confronted by war and recession, rousing rhetoric is easier to come up with, and standing ovations are apparently a dime a dozen, judging by the number of times the audience in Congress rose to their feet to punctuate Bush's short, simple sentences about "freedom" and "evil" and his vaguely-worded policy proposals. A perverse "worse is better" principle may be at work here: the worse our problems become, the more we need help and the better our leader - any leader - sounds.


Scott Alexander (scottxyz@usa.com) is a freelance computer programmer living in New York and Florida.

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