President Bush's State of the Union speech showed just how closely he and his staff have been following the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination, and how conscious they are of the opposition's emerging campaign themes 10 long months before Election Day.
From Iraq to taxes, from the USA Patriot Act to school funding, from foreign policy to deficit spending, Bush responded to criticisms that his would-be challengers are still working to formulate. Sometimes, incumbents act as if they have not heard what their critics are saying about them. Bush's father, for example, seemed not to register Bill Clinton's attacks on his economic policies until fairly late in the 1992 campaign.
Clearly, the current president's ears have been burning.
Bush has heard what the Democrats have been saying about him in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere: that the war on terrorism is lagging, that he has squandered international goodwill with his actions in Iraq, that he misled the public into war, that his tax cuts have plunged the country into deficit, that he has failed to deliver education reform, that he has put millions out of work, and so on. These charges, and other campaign imperatives, gave shape to a speech that was otherwise rather loosely tied together, where it was tied at all.
Never mentioned by name, the Democrats nonetheless populated and propelled the speech, appearing as "some people," "some critics" and "defenders" of "the status quo." The specter of the challengers lent some credence to the frequent statements by Bush and his advisers that they expect a very close election this fall. There was a caution to it that Bush has not displayed in recent years, the caution, perhaps, of a man who has seen public opinion -- as in the most recent Washington Post poll -- souring on many of his policies, even as his job approval rides high.
The man who told Congress a year ago he was headed to war arrived this year with a proposal for halfway houses for released inmates, and an appeal to athletes to stop popping steroids. The big plan floated a week ago -- to settle the moon and strike out for Mars -- never came up, having bombed in the polls and on both sides of the congressional aisle.
The hovering Democrats also gave Bush's speech a distinctly reactive tone. A White House strategist acknowledged as much after reading the final draft. "To an extent rare for him in a speech, he took the arguments of the critics and dealt with them," the aide said. "Most of the time, a president makes assertions, not arguments. But this speech, more than most, takes on the arguments of the critics."
"Some people question" the war on terrorism, Bush noted, before answering that "nearly two-thirds of [al Qaeda's] known leaders have now been captured or killed."
"Some critics have said" U.S. foreign policy is too unilateral, Bush allowed, before ticking off a list of 17 countries with troops in Iraq and citing his teamwork with "the international community" to contain threats in North Korea and Iran.
Battered by charges that he hyped the issue of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Bush tried a bit of rhetorical judo. Because he made good on the ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, he asserted, "no one can now doubt the word of America."
On the tax issue, Bush argued that economic growth, new home construction, low inflation and interest rates prove that "the American people are using their money far better than government would have."
He dismissed critics of his education budgets, saying that "the status quo always has its defenders." Although the main criticism of the president is that he is not spending enough to raise standards, Bush charged that his detractors "want to weaken the No Child Left Behind Act by weakening standards and accountability."
On the jobs issue, Bush parried with a mixed bag of training initiatives that he called "Jobs for the 21st Century."
The emerging Democratic critique might even explain topics that Bush left out of the speech. Apart from a few broad generalizations, the leading candidates to take on Bush have not mounted a sharp attack on the Bush environmental record; Bush apparently felt no need to defend himself, and he gave not a word to the subject.
Billed as a State of the Union, Bush's speech was more like the raw stone from which a campaign stump speech will be chiseled. Officials at the Bush reelection campaign and inside the Republican Party were frank about their desire to confine the speech, as much as possible, to topics where Bush is either broadly popular or believes he can win support. The result was a series of notable omissions, from the space initiative to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- which aides view as intractable and, thus, potentially damaging to Bush's image as an effective leader.
It also bore the marks of symbolic straddling that signal a general election campaign speech. With no primary challenger of his own, Bush was able to give mere nods to his conservative base, stopping short of any real red meat.
For example, after more than 90 House Republicans had asked him to propose specific cuts to offset his new expenditures, he promised fiscal conservatives that he would "be wise with the people's money."
He gestured to a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages "if judges insist on forcing their arbitrary will upon the people." A leading supporter of the amendment, the Family Research Council, complained that he should have called for action now.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) certainly heard it as a campaign speech. "He was saying one thing to the public in an election year while he is doing something else in his policies," he said.
No doubt that will be part of the next round of criticisms from the Democrats in a campaign that is now sharply joined.