President Bush delivered his last State of the Union speech with an unusual wrinkle for a final year in office: unlike all his predecessors for the past 40 years, he was unable to proclaim that the state of the Union was strong. From a Catholic standpoint, there were several points to cheer. But the omissions were more stark from a moral standpoint.
Mr Bush made no reference to abortion or gay marriage, his two signature domestic issues from the 2004 presidential campaign. Perhaps this was because new abortion data released earlier this month demonstrated that the decline in the abortion rate during Mr Bush's first term was about half that which occurred during President Bill Clinton's first term in office (1.7 vs 3.1/1000). He did not mention new data showing the first increase in teenage pregnancy in the US since 1990. Mr Bush called for dramatic reductions in Congressional 'earmark' spending, but failed to mention that he had approved of $100 billion of spending on 50,000 earmarks while the Republicans were in power during his first six years in office. Mr Bush made no reference to the significantly increased numbers of children living in poverty (Census data indicate 1.2 million more poor children in 2006 compared to 2000), or the climbing number without health insurance (which had leveled off prior to his first term).
On the foreign policy front, Mr Bush's only reference to the hundreds of thousands of people who had been killed in Iraq was his boast that "over the past year, we have captured or killed thousands of extremists in Iraq, including hundreds of key Al Qaeda leaders and operatives." He said nothing about the fact that none of these people would have been killed, either combatants or bystanders, if he had not claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or posed an imminent threat to the US. He did not mention the five US servicemen killed in Iraq the day of his speech, or the other 3917 funerals he has not attended. He did not mention the 121 murders unearthed by the NY Times, caused by returning veterans with no previous criminal record, each haunted by the destruction in which they were engaged. In short, he did not acknowledge that his Administration was responsible for initiating one of the three most murderous conflicts of the early 21st Century. He described his goal in Iraq in simple retributional terms: "We will deliver justice to the enemies of America."
Some of his remarks were grossly misleading. He stated at the beginning of his address that there were "116 million American taxpayers who would see their taxes rise by an average of $1,800" if his 2001 and 2003 tax cuts were not made permanent. By citing an average tax savings for only a fraction of all taxpayers, he misled his audience with a figure skewed upward by the average $112,000 savings of people who earn more than $1 million per year. The median tax savings were actually $470 for those paying federal income taxes. Dr Howard Dean, Chairman of the DNC, had estimated that the figure was closer to $360, when one takes into account all the other American households whose taxes are primarily property, sales and other local taxes. For example, about 13 million people over 65 who paid all their taxes in forms other than the federal income tax would not be included in Mr Bush's figures, according to the Tax Policy Center.
To the extent that taxes are a form of collective generosity to the Common Good, agreed to on our behalf by our legislators, Mr Bush was urging the Congress to persist in imposing a greater share of this burden on the lowest earners in society. Catholic Social Teaching cannot support this kind of self-enrichment at the expense of the many for the benefit of the few.
If any theme emerged from the speech, it was an emphasis on fighting. More than just the announcement that more US troops would be fighting in Afghanistan, and that any US progress in Iraq was not sufficient to justify accelerated disengagement there, he repeatedly referred to even his humanitarian gestures as "leading the fight." He repeated his call for increasing US funding for "fighting HIV/AIDS" to $30 billion over 5 years. He said America was "leading the fight against global poverty" and "leading the fight against global hunger," in particular asking that Congress enable US foreign food aid to be spent in local food markets. Past US food aid had served to undermine local agriculture markets, while taking much longer to provide aid to the hungry (by insisting on sending grain, rather than dollars).
To his credit, Mr Bush spoke in positive terms about the immigration issue, stating that the US must "find a sensible and humane way to deal with people here illegally. Illegal immigration is complicated, but it can be resolved. And it must be resolved in a way that upholds both our laws and our highest ideals." Many of the US bishops have spoken in similar terms. Mr Bush seemed to be responding to the conservative election rhetoric that had sought to villanize immigrants, and he is certainly aware of the unlikelihood of any meaningful legislation on this issue passing during a presidential election year.
He also called for additional funding to support DC students in attending private schools, including Catholic schools. He saluted new developments in stem cell research, and pledged to provide more funding for it. For the first time he made a public statement indicating that he thought we should aim eventually to "reverse the growth of greenhouse gases," though he offered no specific proposals.
All told, Mr Bush enters his final year with no clear remorse for the suffering imposed on the people in Iraq, no clear commitment to any practical accomplishments on the issue of abortion (he vetoed Democratic legislation in December aimed at prevention of unintended pregnancy, the FY08 Labor-HHS appropriation bill), and stating most forcefully that his central priority is preserving tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Historians will be fighting for years to figure out whether the relatively small investment in stopping the AIDS epidemic, and the appropriation of the "culture of life" language while budgeting virtually nothing on positive measures to reduce unintended pregnancies, will provide any meaningful cover for the massive budgetary, military, and environmental sins that have scarred Mr Bush's presidency.