“Gone were the grand dreams of remaking Social Security, immigration law, or the tax code,” said Peter Baker in The Washington Post. Gone, too, was the belligerent rhetoric about the “Axis of Evil,” and the calls to spread freedom and democracy around the globe. “For a president who has always favored boldness,” George W. Bush’s final State of the Union address this week was modest indeed; mainly, it was an attempt to shore up his past initiatives, such as the troop surge in Iraq, his tax cuts, and the No Child Left Behind education program. This Bush was grayer and less cocky than the one who first addressed the nation in 2001, said Doyle McManus in the Los Angeles Times. Clearly, he’s been chastened by his seven tumultuous years in office and 31 percent approval rating. He acknowledged that there was much “unfinished business” in his domestic agenda, including Social Security and Medicare reform, illegal immigration, and an economic expansion that is now headed for a crash landing. Still, Bush spoke proudly of how the troop surge had “achieved results few of us could have imagined just one year ago.” With barely a year left, the president is now engaged in “a short-term scramble for a long-term legacy.”
That legacy, unfortunately, will be dominated by Iraq, said The Philadelphia Inquirer in an editorial. Bush has spent more than $440 billion and nearly all of his political capital on that “misguided war.” Clearly, “the war has sucked all the time, energy, and money out of the room” and seriously crippled Bush’s domestic agenda. “His past pledge to create more access to health insurance? Forgotten.” Environmental protection? Bush mentioned it once. There’s almost no time left for him to accomplish anything of note. Face it, said the Chicago Tribune. Bush is “a lame duck skirting the edges of relevance.”
In listening to Bush’s speech, said Peter Canellos in The Boston Globe, it’s hard not to think about the presidency “that might have been.” When Bush spoke hopefully of bipartisan compromise on energy conservation, climate change, and economic security, he reminded us that in 2000 he promised to be a “different kind of Republican.” It’s hard to believe today, said Jacob Weisberg in The New York Times, but in his 2002 State of the Union, Bush proposed doubling the size of the Peace Corps, and called on Americans to commit two years to community service. Whatever happened to that George W. Bush? He became obsessed with Iraq, rendering the Compassionate Conservative a “largely fictional” character.
Not true, said Michael Gerson in The Washington Post. If you look at the record, Bush really did deliver on compassionate conservatism. Many of his big initiatives—No Child Left Behind, $30 billion over five years to combat AIDS, the Medicare prescription drug benefit—“simply would not have come from a traditional conservative politician.” Liberals give Bush no credit for these programs, simply because they despise the man for his foreign policy. “Iraq may have overshadowed these achievements; it does not eliminate them.”
Politically, though, Bush’s presidency has been “a disaster,” said Lou Cannon and Carl M. Cannon, also in the Post. His administration’s management of the war in Iraq and the Hurricane Katrina disaster were fiascoes, and he’s left the Republican Party fractured and demoralized. But it takes the perspective of decades to judge a presidency; Harry Truman, remember, left office with the lowest approval ratings in history, and now is widely admired. As Bush begins his last year in office, “who knows how the story will end?”