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While you were out drinking last night, or in watching repeats of Real World: San Diego (You're afraid of big metal boats? Please. At least get a good phobia.), The Black Table was diligently watching Vice President Dick Cheney spill a glass of water on President George W. Bush. Oh, and we tuned in for the speech, too.

Bush talked about tax cuts (keep 'em), the war (it's still going), the children (drug testing, please), and immigration (let 'em in, if they want crap jobs). But what does this annual blather all mean? And why should we care? Because that guy is going to be president for another four years. Or another guy will, one who can convince Americans that what President Bush said tonight is not the future we want.

We should probably pay attention to this crap.


At 9:10 p.m. on January 20, 2004, President George W. Bush started his re-election campaign. In exactly one year from that day, either he or one of seven Democrats would be sworn is as president of the United States. The State of the Union address was the president's chance to make a case for himself and his administration.

At first, his case sounded like a limply-covered threat: "We can press on … or we can turn back to old policies and old divisions. We have not come all this way through tragedy, and trial, and war, only to falter and leave our work unfinished." In short, we run the risk of September 11: The Sequel if Bush is not in the White House in 2004.

The president responded to a laundry list of complaints. Calling the much-maligned USA Patriot Act an "essential tool," Bush urged Congress to continue supporting the law. "Key provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire," Bush said to timid, and then stronger applause from the Democrats' side of the chamber. He continued: "You need to renew the Patriot Act." Cut to a beaming Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Touching on Iraq, Bush provided no exit strategy. "America is a nation called to great responsibilities, and we will rise to meet them," he said. While Bush seeks "full Iraqi sovereignty by the end of June 2004," no deadline has been set for the removal of American troops. The fate of the troops, most obviously the death tolls, will be a Democratic catchphrase for the next election.

Though much laughed at for his "Mission Accomplished" landing on an aircraft carrier, Bush brought it up along with his Thanksgiving Day visit to Iraqi troops. He pledged to fully back the military's needs in the war on terrorism. No price tag was provided. But presidents always pledge to fully-fund the military's needs; no surprises here.

And this is most certainly a WAR, Bush said. "The terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States, and war is what they got." Invoking what is now known as the "Bush Doctrine," the president pledged to continue on a unilateral course, if need be. "For diplomacy to be effective, words must be credible. And no one can now doubt the word of America."

"Some in the chamber and this country did not support the liberation of Iraq," Bush said. Though that was never the case made for the war in the first place, now all those against it (mostly liberals, oddly enough), were apparently against "liberation." On the eve of war, all we heard was weapons of mass destruction. But good to know the end is providing the means. During this part of the speech, PBS cut to Sen. Ted Kennedy, red-facedly shaking his head.

While the Bush Doctrine got Iran to tone down its nuclear weapons program and other countries are lining up with the U.S. in support of its efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, what Bush said later in the speech must have made worried U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan just a little. "America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our country." But is that what happened with Iraq? Bush then offered a spoonful of sugar, with some beautiful alliteration: "We have no desire to dominate, no ambitions of empire…"

Jobs for the 21st Century

After defending his "No Child Left Behind Act," Bush threw in some for students beyond 8th grade. Now, Bush wants to expand Advanced Placement programs in low-income schools. He wants to encourage those in science and math fields to come out of the private sector and teach part time. He wants to increase federal Pell grants to those who take "challenging" high school courses. And finally, he wants increased support for community colleges.

These are all fine ideas. But paying for them will be even tougher, since Bush urged Congress to make his tax cuts permanent (many of the provision are set to expire next year).

Bush promised to deliver to Congress a budget that would fund his programs with a discretionary spending cap of 4 percent a year. "By doing so, we can cut the deficit in half over the next five years." That's supposing the costs of the war and everything else stays static, so don't count on it. But at least Bush (sort of) addressed the fact that he turned a surplus into a giant deficit.


Remember that thing you heard about last week, where Bush would grant temporary work permits to illegal immigrants? The idea balloon remained aloft after a rare White House leak, so he's still into it. Illegal workers will get the permit "when no Americans can be found to fill the job." A little more information would be useful (how hard are employers looking?) here. A Mexican dishwasher might lose the threat of deportation, but getting taxed on minimum wage as a legal employee is going to rub quite a bit. Uh, how about more information please, Mr. President.

Health Care

After talking a lot about senior prescription drug plans, the president finally got to the good stuff -- health insurance for the rest of us. While Bush is still against universal health care, he did call for allowing those who carry only "catastrophic insurance," aka "Hit-by-a-bus insurance," to deduct the premiums from their taxes. For those who often bypass this barest of coverage because of its expense, making such insurance deductible is probably what all that "compassionate conservatism" was about.

Sex and Drugs

President Bush asked sports team owners, athletes and officials to get rid of steroids in sports because it's sending a miserable message to young Americans. He's absolutely right. But ever since the market began preferring home run derbies to fielding finesse, it's going to be a tough sell. Since the president asked and all, they could at least give it a shot. And maybe they will, since he also advocated "drug testing in schools." Such testing is "not a method to punish children, but to say, 'We love you and do not want to lose you.'" Such a statement proves that Bush absolutely cannot remember what it's like to be sitting on a vibrating bed doing blow in a hotel room, running up the SpectraVision tab.

But for God's sake, kids, don't get laid. Terrible things will happen to you. To combat legions of horny teens, Bush wants to "double federal funding for abstinence programs." Drug use among teenagers may be down 11 percent since 2000 if Bush's figures are right, but if the kids aren't getting high they're probably getting laid. Or drunk (though the president skipped that part). But at least they won't be using those horrid condoms. The United States will not stoop to the siren song of safe sex.

The Staying Strategy

Jim Lehrer, the PBS news anchor who has watched more State of the Union addresses than most folks, said he'd never seen the president sign autographs on the way out of the chamber. There's something a little tacky, and a little disturbing, about a star-struck Congress. But President Bush responded gladly and with confidence.

With this speech, Bush tipped his hand. Though he was talking to Congress, and to the public, his words were obstacles tossed in the paths of those who want to move into his house. According to Bush, you have to best the guy who cut taxes, best the guy who caught Saddam Hussein, best the guy who oversaw a new constitution in Afghanistan.

That's going to be rough.