WASHINGTON — The television “money shot” was vividly obvious: Safia Taleb al-Suhai, whose father had been murdered by Saddam Hussein’s regime, embracing Janet Norwood, whose son had been killed in the assault on Fallujah. But when you watch a State of the Union speech from inside the House, as I just did, you see things you don’t see on TV. What I’m thinking of is President Bush confidently, insistently tapping his open palm on the pages of his speech as he read his favorite passages about liberty.
It’s his holy writ. He loved to read from it and seemed to think that everyone was or should have been inspired by it. Peering down from the press gallery, I was looking at a man who obviously feels that the winds of history are at his back. I’ve covered him long enough to know when he is faking it, when the bravado is brittle, when the smile is the frigid one of a man surrounded. This Bush looked and spoke like one very much — and very comfortably — in charge. I remember his first campaign swing, to Iowa, in the summer of 1999. He was tentative and smiley in that unsettling way, throwing off those give-me-a-break shrugs. The guy I just saw was a man at the top of his game, all but daring the Democrats to make his day.
Fear and loathing on Social Security
And they are going to try. They are in a foul and rejectionist mood in part because so many Republicans, quietly and not so quietly, are scared to death of what the president wants to do. So the president is going to need all the confidence and experience he has amassed in five years to sell Social Security “reform.”
The most politically alarming number that has penetrated public consciousness so far is the one about how the “transition cost” of creating private savings accounts could run to $2 trillion. The Dems have succeeded in dramatizing that cost long before Bush had begun making his case for the blessing — presuming the stock market bestows it — of diverting one-third of payroll tax money from the Social Security trust fund to individual accounts.
Why is the president making this the centerpiece of his domestic agenda? Substantive reasons: The Baby Boomers WILL drain the reserves totally dry by 2040 or so; something ought to be done now to avoid that nightmare. And it may be a good idea to rely, to some extent, on the market as an alternative to what Social Security is now — a pure tax-transfer system.
But this is as much about politics is actuarial arithmetic. I know how Bush and Karl Rove operate. They believe in raising the ideological stakes whenever they can, in taking any problem and making it bigger. They also believe that politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum and that the best defense is a good offense. Better to conduct a debate on the other guy’s turf, and there is no more sacred ground to Democrats than Social Security.
The benefit of setting the agenda
In the end, if Bush can’t get everything he wants on Social Security, or really very much at all, he will gladly settle for something less — and breathe a sigh of relief that the Congress didn’t spend the year on gloomier topics, such as medical care, or the Republicans’ failure to fund all of the president’s programs (such as Leave No Child Behind or AIDS in Africa), or the GOP’s failure in other respects to rein in runaway deficits.
There may even be benefit for Bush in the mere act of trying. “If we just stand there and say ‘no,’ we are going to lose,” Democratic Rep. Harold Ford of Tennessee told me after the speech. “The president will be able to say, ‘I’m looking to the future, I’m on the side of the rising generation.” Ford’s answer: oppose diverting payroll tax streams, but create a new savings plan on top of Social Security.
The president’s remarks on domestic issues were shrewd, but those on foreign policy were in a different, higher category: assured to the point of sermon-like. Indeed, it was hard to argue with his paeans to the spread of democracy, or at least the first glimmerings of it, whether that advance has really made us safer as a nation or not. Bush kept saying things that forced the Democrats to stand and applaud with their GOP colleagues.
In all this up-and-downing, I happened to notice Rep. Mel Watt, a leader of the Congressional Black Caucus. He resolutely kept his seat for it all. Only when Bush congratulated the Iraqis for their bravery in voting did Watt get to his feet.
And then, the big embrace. It was the memorable moment of the night. I daresay there were tears in many eyes, maybe even one or two pairs in the press gallery.
By that time a number of Democrats had left the chamber, to make their way to Statuary Hall for their rebuttals. But they may as well have saved their breath — a hug had won the night, and the president looked on and smiled.
Howard Fineman is Newsweek’s chief political correspondent and an NBC News analyst.