Tonight’s State of the Union address began on a high note, with George W. Bush acknowledging that he was the first United States president to begin his speech with the words “Madam Speaker.” As I watched Speaker Nancy Pelosi call the proceedings to order and sit to the president’s left, it was a particular pleasure to point out to my 6th grade daughter that this was the first State of the Union in the country’s history with a woman in the picture.
Bush continued in an almost conciliatory fashion, congratulating the new Democratic majority in Congress. But we’ve heard that tone from him before, starting with his 2000 promise to be “a uniter, not a divider.” And he didn’t extend his conciliatory tone to the programs he offered, or to the ones he didn’t offer. And warm words can’t change the sorry shape the country is in, after six years of Bush and a Republican-led Congress in charge.
In just six years, Bush has inflicted immeasurable damage both within this country and beyond. This presidency was headed for disaster from the start, because Bush and his allies function in a realm all their own, disconnected from the day-to-day lives of most people in the United States. The Bush administration policymakers apparently live in a fantasy world where every problem can be solved with another round of giveaways to big business, more tax cuts for the rich, or a war which, at least in their rarified world, is “good for the economy.”
Take a look at Bush’s major focus of the night. His recent plan to salvage the situation in Iraq has already met with wide disapproval, yet the president announced his intention to forge ahead with troop increases that put more lives at risk – even though past troop “surges” have met with little success. The U.S. military has lost more than 3,000 men and women, and an estimated 55,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed since the war began. Countless more have suffered serious injuries and most Iraqis live in constant fear. At this point, the only beneficiaries of U.S. action in Iraq are Halliburton, Bechtel and other war and disaster profiteers.
What Bush didn’t say in his sixth State of the Union speech was almost as telling as what he did say. Although he addressed the plight of those who lack basic health insurance, Bush’s proposed solution was more tax cuts that do little to help those most in need; he failed to mention the only real solution: universal health care. Bush neglected to address the issue of poverty in the U.S., including the persistent wage gap between women and men and the growing disparity between the wealthiest one percent and the rest of the country – a gap that continues to widen in part because of the Bush tax breaks for the wealthiest among us. One way to help lift women and families out of poverty is by raising the minimum wage, which the House just called for by passing long overdue legislation. Does Bush support this effort? He didn’t say.
A president capable of relating to the average person would have given a very different speech tonight. A truly compassionate leader would have updated the nation on the efforts to rebuild in New Orleans and Mississippi since Hurricane Katrina. Or proposed a way to genuinely strengthen Social Security, and announced a “surge” of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research. A feminist president would have talked about initiatives to help families balance work and caregiving, an expansion of reproductive health services, and a campaign to end violence against women and girls. A president genuinely committed to equality would have affirmed the right of same-sex couples to marry and ended the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. That president would have challenged and inspired us all.
Speaker Pelosi’s positive, productive leadership these past few weeks has given women’s rights supporters a much needed dose of pride and hope. Maybe we can elect a president in 2008 whose goal is to make this nation work for everyone, not just the “have mores” – a leader who can be trusted to reveal her or his true agenda.