State of the Union Overview
While disappointing, it was predictable. It echoed an aphorism of another President, Calvin Coolidge, popularly (and erroneously) rendered as “The business of America is business.” Indeed, the current diplomatic, military, and domestic and international economic deficits that beset the United States after seven years of the Bush presidency could be seen as the inevitable product of a highly inappropriate management philosophy for modern government.
This somewhat innocuous opening statement was no accident. In fact, the speech turned from domestic issues to military concerns of peace and war using the business metaphor. And the final word before the ritual “God bless America,” was – “business.”
Bush or his speechwriter might have done better by consulting the text of Coolidge’s 1925 speech to the Association of American Newspaper Editors for the exact quote, which is: “The chief business of the American people is business.” In fact, the final thoughts expressed by Coolidge in his speech to the editors places strong emphasis on that which – to borrow from a popular television credit card commercial – is “priceless” because it cannot be bought, sold, or traded.
“We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth,
but there are many other things that we want very much
more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is
so strong an element of all civilization. The chief ideal of
the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often
that America is a nation of idealists. That is the only motive
to which they ever give any strong and lasting reaction.”
But beyond these deficits, Bush never does get to the critical pragmatic detail of who decides what is the “”people’s business,” who translates the idealism of which Coolidge spoke into practical achievements? George Bush once famously said that he was “the decider”; yet the history of the struggle of Colonial North America against the British crown repudiates the claim that the chief executive of the United States government fills that role.
Bush does concede the point rhetorically: “We believe that the most reliable guide for our country is the collective wisdom of ordinary citizens.” But this is to affirm a form of populism that, in describing the benefits of free trade for democracy, he labels all who oppose such trade as “purveyors of false populism.”
Other contradictions appear. He speaks of the “armies of compassion” that descended on the U.S. Gulf coast after Hurricane Katrina. Yet just before that point in his speech, he calls on the Senate to approve his judicial nominees who will “rule by the letter of the law, not the whim of the gavel.” While justice must be under law and not under men, to insist strictly on the letter of the law excludes mercy or compassion – and arguably is itself a form of injustice. Similarly, Bush’s demand that the growth of entitlements be reined in because “they are growing faster than we can afford” is disingenuous when he has poured a trillion dollars into wars that need never have been fought and that continue to drain lives and national treasure.
Bush also declares that the U.S. is “engaged in the defining ideological struggle of the 21st century,” one that “years from now, people will look back [on] and say that this generation rose to the moment, prevailed in a tough fight, and left behind s more hopeful region and a safer America.”
Is there not in this declaration an attempt by the president to capture for his legacy an echo of what many Americans still believe was the “last good war” of the last century?
After more than six years of continuous war, the president calls for more war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan and threatens a new war with Iran, all for what he calls “vital national interests.”
As discouraging as this is, what is worse is that those who would be president starting next January 20th have no better understanding that America’s real national interest is peace – which lies at the intersection of truth, justice, and trust between and among all people.