President Bush has forfeited the faith of the American people, and judging from his language Tuesday night, he knows it.
In his 2006 State of the Union speech, the president felt it necessary to warn us against "economic retreat," against retreating "from our duties in the hope of easier life."
"There is no peace in retreat," the president said, "and there is no honor in retreat." He warned against "abandoning our commitments and retreating within our borders," promising that "the United States will not retreat from the world."
"Never give in to the belief that America is in decline," he begged his fellow citizens, "or that our culture is doomed to unravel."
Retreat. Decline. Retreat. . . . The White House had advertised the speech as optimistic, but its unconscious recurring theme, its underlying tone, proved to be anything but.
The president's language did, however, reflect the nation's mood. For months, almost two-thirds of Americans have been telling pollsters that the country was headed in the wrong direction. Almost two-thirds say the economy is fair or poor, despite the fact that by many standard measures it's doing pretty well. And while President Bush says we're winning in Iraq, 60 percent disapprove of how he has handled that critically important challenge.
Some might interpret those numbers to mean that the American people are losing faith in this country — that's clearly the president's fear, for example. But I think that's wrong. We have lost faith in our leadership, which is a very different thing.
That loss of faith applies not just to the president but to government in general: Approval ratings for Congress are even lower than those for Bush. And it stretches beyond government. Too many of our corporate executives seem trapped in the gone old days, unable to adapt to new challenges, with thousands of jobs disappearing as a consequence. Too many of the rest are enriching themselves by squeezing hundreds of millions of dollars out of their workers' hides, while government cuts taxes on their proceeds.
Across all realms, there's a sense that our leaders lack the courage, the moral strength and the intellectual independence to address fundamental problems. Again, Bush's speech offers the perfect example.
In another echo of President Carter's infamous "malaise speech" of 1979, Bush pledged Tuesday night to break our oil addiction, to "move beyond a petroleum-based economy and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past."
That's a worthy goal, but the president made no mention of taking such difficult steps as raising auto fuel-efficiency standards. He promised only the painless option of boosting spending on clean-energy research by 22 percent in the 2007 budget.
That "bold" new investment amounts to just 6.8 percent of ExxonMobil's profit for the fourth quarter, or what we spend in four days in Iraq.
No pain, no sacrifice, no hard work. Pick your topic; it's a story repeated over and over again.
In Iraq, the Bush administration didn't do the hard work of planning and preparing for an occupation and never committed the resources or manpower to make it work. The results are all too glaring.
After the terrorism of Sept. 11, 2001, we were promised a government ready to respond to the next disaster, but Hurricane Katrina proved that to be all talk as well. The administration just never took the job seriously, and it showed.
The same is true of the Medicare prescription drug plan. It's gonna cost us $500 billion we don't have, and even at that price it has been an administrative nightmare.
Go through the list — what project has this administration succeeded in pulling off, other than its own re-election and the creation of a right-wing Supreme Court? The answer is nothing.
In fact, they refuse even to acknowledge some of our most pressing problems. Man-made climate change is threatening to disrupt the environment on a planetary scale, and we do nothing. Last year our national savings dropped to the lowest level since the depths of the Great Depression, and we do nothing. We finance our greed and selfishness not by our own productive sweat and toil, but by borrowing another $2 billion every day from the rest of the world, money that our children and grandchildren will have to repay.
The president's right about this much: The American people do not like to retreat, and are by nature optimistic.
But optimism is a right purchased through hard work and sacrifice. We used to know that, but the memory's been lost.
Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.
© 2006 Atlanta Journal-Constitution