I watch the constitutional and media curiosity that is a president's State of the Union Address as a journalistic and civic duty. Every year it is enlivened a bit by some small tingle of anticipation about how the made-for-TV moment of the night will come across on screen.
Last year, it was the historic image of Nancy Pelosi, the first woman speaker of the House, standing behind the president at the rostrum. On Monday, it was the political pairing of Ted Kennedy and Barack Obama, mesmerizing both sides of the aisle in the notoriously partisan House chamber-just as George W. Bush was supposed to be taking command of it.
Command, Bush did not. The feebleness of a lame-duck president with abysmal public approval ratings has pathos to it. It is all the more dreary today because Bush's decline has been brought on by his own policies. His is a legacy of dulled American dreams at home and debilitated American influence abroad.
The country already has turned its attention to the thrust and parry of the presidential primaries. Bush has been tuned out, we are told, and is all but irrelevant.
This impulse to turn away is understandable, but dangerous-especially if it allows us to overlook significant and frightening developments. A sampler: Pakistan's strongman, Pervez Musharraf, has reportedly refused American requests for permission to undertake an intensified U.S. effort-even a joint endeavor with his own security forces-to flush out terrorists from their havens along the border with Afghanistan. Lebanon teeters on the verge of civil war. The bombings in Iraq continue, whether the carnage is shown on American television or not. A crisis erupted in Gaza just after Bush returned from his belated peacemaking sojourn to the Middle East, notable for how lackadaisical it seemed. At home, we face recession after seven years of stagnant incomes for most of us, but with an extraordinary increase in wealth at the top.
"We faced hard decisions about peace and war, rising competition in the world economy, and the health and welfare of our citizens," Bush declared in opening his speech. The verdict of the American people, if not the world, on all of these decisions is that Bush made the wrong choices.
The next president will bear the burdens imposed on any American president, and will also be forced to shoulder the oppressive load Bush has forced upon his successor. The most significant folly is Iraq, an endeavor costing more than $9 billion every month, a price we pay for in less U.S. security, not more. We have replaced Saddam Hussein, who was boxed in by international sanctions and U.S. and British-enforced "no-fly zones," with an Iraqi government that cannot function politically or economically. The Congressional Budget Office, in a recent estimate of future American military costs, assumes that "U.S. forces stationed in Iraq would not be able to rely heavily on Iraq's civilian economy and infrastructure for support for the foreseeable future."
We wish to tune Bush out, to turn a hopeful page that rests on anticipation of a November election that is supposed to bring relief. But we cannot just turn the switch off on the Bush presidency, for the simple reason that Bush is still the man at the switch.
Even as he signed a massive defense authorization bill this week, Bush made more notorious use of "signing statements." This time, he declared he has the authority to ignore four laws passed as part of the defense measure. The most significant restriction Bush says he can bypass is a prohibition on using federal funds to establish permanent military bases in Iraq. Other provisions the president claims he can ignore are those strengthening protections for whistleblowers who expose wrongdoing among government contractors, and another requiring intelligence agencies to turn over reports to Congress. The White House also objected to a provision establishing an independent commission to probe wartime contracting abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Who can recall a president who has done so much damage in so short a time? Only Richard Nixon and Herbert Hoover come to mind.
Avert your eyes, if you must. But there is no telling how much more harm can be done in the next 10 months while we look the other way.
Marie Cocco's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group