Sabato's Crystal Ball

So to…the Sotu

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics February 3rd, 2005

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Every four years the president treats the country to twinned rhetorical flourishes. First comes the poetry, in the form of the Inaugural Address. Then the prose follows, in the State of the Union address.

Vigorous warfare between Democrats and Republicans has been waged without surcease, save for a few blessed days after the Nov. 2 election. With neither party giving any quarter, the president entered the House chamber to give the first State of the Union of his second term. Bush came as a conquering hero, possessing something lacking on Inauguration Day: real hope in Iraq, a consequence of the successful Jan. 30 elections on which Bush had staked virtually everything. In this one respect, Bush’s State of the Union had the element of “hope” that FDR offered on March 4, 1933, when he uttered his immortal words: “We have nothing to fear but [pause for effect] fear itself!” White House operatives could feel justifiable pride in this clever, fortuitous juxtaposition of events. The scheduling of the State of the Union so soon after the Iraqi elections was an enormous gamble, but it paid off.

Second terms usually seem flat. The fizz has long since gone out of a presidency, and most items on the agenda are recycled, failed pieces of the first term. Add to these three unavoidable pieces of the presidential puzzle:

  1. Lame duck-itis sets in no later than 18 months into the second term, increasing pressure on the chief executive to get things done quickly.
  2. President Bush has the lowest, beginning-of-term approval rating of any White House occupant since polls have been taken, starting in the mid-1930s. (This includes new and reelected presidents.) Bush cannot afford to fritter away much support; though it is also true that Bush’s backers are relatively intense and will probably stay by his side. Bush’s approximately 51 percent approval rating is firmer than most of his predecessors, whatever their overall level in the polls.
  3. In the Democrats’ view, John Kerry came close enough to victory–and the campaign was bitter enough–to maintain the deep polarization that exists between the party caucuses. Senate and House Democrats have been unusually aggressive so early in a presidential term in attacking many Bush nominees and proposals.

With this background to Bush’s Groundhog Day State of the Union, what did we learn from his speech?

So will this Groundhog Day State of the Union signal a quick spring of achievement, or a long winter of discontent in D.C.? From some angles on TV, there appeared to be a presidential shadow, and from others, none at all. There is no consistent second-term “curse” on presidents, as NBC irritatingly kept insisting, but where you stand on the likelihood of this president’s success depends on where you sit, literally or figuratively, in the House chamber.

A Look Back At The Inaugural Address, In Light of State of the Union

Sad to say, most inaugural addresses are eminently forgettable. In all of American history, only a few have been truly notable and memorable: Washington’s first (since it was the first), Jefferson’s first (an eloquent call for unity), Lincoln’s second (a plea, ultimately unrealized, for a compassionate Reconstruction–dramatically timed to coincide with the end of the bloody Civil War), Franklin Roosevelt’s first (in the crisis of the Great Depression, when Americans needed, and received “hope”), and John F. Kennedy’s stirring call to patriotism in the midst of the Cold War. That’s it. Among recent Presidents, only Gerald Ford–who didn’t have a true Inauguration, just an oath taking when Nixon resigned–uttered even a single line that has made the history books (“Our long national nightmare is over,” a reference to the Watergate scandal). Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were among our most articulate presidential speechmakers, but their addresses lackedthe essential quality of timelessness.

Therefore, it was a surprise when George W. Bush–by his own admission, no Reagan at the microphone–gave a Wilsonian inaugural address on Jan. 20, 2005, that is still stirring the pot weeks later. Bush’s heartfelt and broad-brush cry for liberty and freedom around the world stunned allies and enemies alike, since a literal reading of it suggested that the United States would, in JFK’s words, “bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty” even by up-ending all those “friendly” dictatorships around the globe, from Egypt to China.

Naturally, Bush meant nothing of the sort. Iraq and Afghanistan and al Qaeda are more than enough to fill the U.S. plate for years to come. But the embarrassing contrast between a fierce, freedom-loving speech and the administration’s support of some freedom-loathing nations was brought into sharp relief by the Jan. 20th speech. It was not a speech for the ages, as Bush might have hoped, but a speech that helped define the current era of necessary hypocrisies abroad and partisan polarization at home. There was no honeymoon, not even on the President’s big day, when once upon a time, not a peep of criticism was uttered in deference to the winner of our premier quadrennial slugfest.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the remarkably successful Iraqi election and its aftermath will drain a bit of the partisan swamp on the Potomac. Hope springs eternal.