SOTU Analysis, Part 2


In these last three years, adversity has also revealed the fundamental strengths of the American economy. We have come through recession, and terrorist attack, and corporate scandals, and the uncertainties of war. And because you acted to stimulate our economy with tax relief, this economy is strong, and growing stronger.

You have doubled the child tax credit from $500 to a thousand dollars, reduced the marriage penalty, begun to phase out the death tax, reduced taxes on capital gains and stock dividends, cut taxes on small businesses, and you have lowered taxes for every American who pays income taxes.

The return of the pronoun “you” attached to a laundry-list of Republican initiatives which he credits with improving the economy. Economists would likely differ.

Americans took those dollars and put them to work, driving this economy forward. The pace of economic growth in the third quarter of 2003 was the fastest in nearly 20 years. New home construction: the highest in almost 20 years. Home ownership rates: the highest ever. Manufacturing activity is increasing. Inflation is low. Interest rates are low. Exports are growing. Productivity is high. And jobs are on the rise.

These numbers confirm that the American people are using their money far better than government would have — and you were right to return it.

The first graf, a sequence of figures and unconfirmed assertions that are at least debatable and at most false (“jobs are on the rise”–they aren’t; we’re just not losing quite as many every month), is set up as proof of the assertion in the second graf. The unstated assumptions here are that: a) the economy can be measured by these simple criteria; and b) that the govt’s economic responsibility goes no further. If these two assumptions were not being made, he would have been forced to mention: a) the enormous deficit and staggering trade imbalance, and b) the number of social, health, job training, and poverty programs that have been cut to the bone or eliminated altogether by the very same tax cuts. By leaving out such considerations, he virtually defines govt’s role as the very narrow one of “business booster”. By defining the economy in terms of home-buying and manufacturing, he likewise defines the population which is the target of govt help–the middle and upper classes. He does not see those who can’t afford to buy homes–or even pay ever higher rents–as part of his constituency. If he did, he would presumably have said something about them and their difficulties in what has come to be known as a “jobless recovery”.

America’s growing economy is also a changing economy. As technology transforms the way almost every job is done, America becomes more productive, and workers need new skills. Much of our job growth will be found in high-skilled fields like health care and biotechnology. So we must respond by helping more Americans gain the skills to find good jobs in our new economy.

Sounds sensible. This would be the place to announce a jobs-training program, but he doesn’t. Instead, he says:

All skills begin with the basics of reading and math, which are supposed to be learned in the early grades of our schools. Yet for too long, for too many children, those skills were never mastered. By passing the No Child Left Behind Act, you have made the expectation of literacy the law of our country. We are providing more funding for our schools — a 36 percent increase since 2001. We are requiring higher standards. We are regularly testing every child on the fundamentals. We are reporting results to parents, and making sure they have better options when schools are not performing. We are making progress toward excellence for every child.

Paired with the graf above, he seems to be saying that the way he intends to prepare workers for the new labor market is to start them learning skills when they’re in elementary school. Of course he doesn’t mean that, so, since he isn’t proposing a job-training program, the previous graf is meaningless–just a structural bridge between the economy and the NCLBA.

He considers the NCLBA, the only social service or education program he has proposed which was actually passed, a signature achievement so here he includes himself by using “we”, acknowledging that his Admin as well as the Congress was fundamental to its enactment. Like all Presidents in recent memory and now in credit-taking mode, he goes on to confuse the budget increases in education–which Congressional Republicans fought and he tried to discourage–with the money promised by the NCLBA, money which was in fact cut from the budget fairly early on at the insistence of Republican legislators.

Despite the pleas of educators that the Act is underfunded at best and unfunded at worst, he proposes no new funding; despite criticisms that the Act turns schools into centers for test-training and penalizes poor school districts disproportionately, he offers no modifications of its provisions to address those concerns but yet another series of assertions that all is well in the best of all possible worlds, assertions that run counter to news reports, professional evaluations, and anecdotal evidence from teachers of the program’s short-comings. Once again, we are expected to believe something because he says it’s true.

But the status quo always has defenders. Some want to undermine the No Child Left Behind Act by weakening standards and accountability. Yet the results we require are really a matter of common sense: We expect third-graders to read and do math at third grade level — and that is not asking too much. Testing is the only way to identify and help students who are falling behind.

This nation will not go back to the days of simply shuffling children along from grade to grade without them learning the basics. I refuse to give up on any child — and the No Child Left Behind Act is opening the door of opportunity to all of America’s children.

At last acknowledging the fact of criticism without dealing with its substance, he attacks critics of the NCLBA with the word “undermining” and accuses them of trying to “weaken” its provisions. These are very active words that carry connotations of laziness and deliberate subversion. Here he is only one short step from the standard ultraconservative denigration of teachers and the teaching profession, but he takes that step in the second graf, indicting the whole educational system for “shuffling children along from grade to grade”, a long-time ultraconservative accusation. Then, for only the third time thus far, he uses the personal pronoun “I”–“I refuse to give up on any child”–in a way that suggests he considers himself a lone embattled figure standing up for the rights of children in the face of universal opposition.

Again, it’s an odd choice. Most presidents would have automatically chosen the more inclusive word “we” in order to promote the idea that they were representing the needs and desires of most Americans; after all, what greater need does society have than the need for a well-educated workforce and citizenry? And isn’t it obvious that we are all responsible for the education of the nation’s kids? Why didn’t he say “we”?

At the same time, we must ensure that older students and adults can gain the skills they need to find work now. Many of the fastest-growing occupations require strong math and science preparation, and training beyond the high school level. So tonight I propose a series of measures called Jobs for the 21st Century. This program will provide extra help to middle and high school students who fall behind in reading and math, expand advanced placement programs in low-income schools, and invite math and science professionals from the private sector to teach part-time in our high schools. I propose larger Pell grants for students who prepare for college with demanding courses in high school. I propose increasing our support for America’s fine community colleges, so they can train workers for the industries that are creating the most new jobs. By all these actions, we will help more and more Americans to join in the growing prosperity of our country.

Job training is important, and so is job creation. We must continue to pursue an aggressive, pro-growth economic agenda.

More than half-way through his speech he finally makes several proposals for changes in a few govt programs dealing with education, including the job-training program at which he hinted several grafs ago. The question arises, “Why did he break off his argument in favor of the training program in order to praise his NCLBA, only to pick it up and finish it later?” Structurally this is very strange, even clumsy. One must assume it was done for a reason, but what reason could there be?

The answer is fairly obvious if we remember that the core radical-conservative world-view sees everything–including education–as an adjunct to business needs. In Bush’s mind there is simply no difference, no separation, between education and job-training; they are part and parcel of the same thing: providing the kind of workers corporations want. For rad-cons, schools–from elementary up–should function as de facto worker-training facilities, and any school program or activity that is irrelevant to that goal is a waste of time and money and should be eliminated.

Here, through this odd structure, Bush has revealed his true belief about the nature of education in America: it exists to train the workers of the future. Note that his proposals, such as they are, center around improving math, science, and reading skills–all crucial to modern business–rather than arts and music skills, civics awareness, or a knowledge of history. Those are NOT relevant to business needs, so–despite a demonstrated weakness in students’ knowledge of their own history, for example, a weakness so profound that almost a fifth of graduating high school seniors don’t know which World War came first even though they’re numbered and fully a third believe Napoleon was an American who fought in either the Revolution or the Civil War–he doesn’t propose bringing expert historians into the classroom to improve our knowledge of history.

For anyone who believes that an education should be aimed at producing well-rounded individuals and knowledgable citizens and not just capable employees, this accidental peek into Junior’s brain is–and ought to be–disturbing.

Congress has some unfinished business on the issue of taxes. The tax reductions you passed are set to expire. Unless you act, the unfair tax on marriage will go back up. Unless you act, millions of families will be charged $300 more in federal taxes for every child. Unless you act, small businesses will pay higher taxes. Unless you act, the death tax will eventually come back to life. Unless you act, Americans face a tax increase. What the Congress has given, the Congress should not take away: For the sake of job growth, the tax cuts you passed should be permanent.

Here, at last, is the other side of the pronoun “you”. Having earlier given the Congress the carrot of total credit for passing his initiatives, he now breaks out the stick of total responsibility for passing the rest of what he wants–and total blame if they don’t. Repetitious use of the phrase “unless you act” drives this home like a hammer. This is fairly threatening language promising retribution and consequences if they fail in their duty to him and–since he has already made sure they understand that he is “the people”–the country. The use of the imperative “will” (“families will be charged”, “businesses will be paying higher taxrs”) leaves no room for debate. This is “do it or else” language.

Again there is no reference to the balooning deficits his tax cuts created; ignoring them is what allows him to promote what the WSJ called “iiresponsible fiscal policie[s]” and propose actions that will make the deficit even worse than it is now.

Our agenda for jobs and growth must help small business owners and employees with relief from needless federal regulation, and protect them from junk and frivolous lawsuits. Consumers and businesses need reliable supplies of energy to make our economy run — so I urge you to pass legislation to modernize our electricity system, promote conservation and make America less dependent on foreign sources of energy. My administration is promoting free and fair trade, to open up new markets for America’s entrepreneurs, and manufacturers, and farmers, and to create jobs for America’s workers. Younger workers should have the opportunity to build a nest egg by saving part of their Social Security taxes in a personal retirement account. We should make the Social Security system a source of ownership for the American people.

In many ways a remarkable graf. It begins with a rad-con list of pro-business grievances, moves to a liberal energy agenda, misrepresents the Admin’s attitude toward trade (based on its actions rather than its rhetoric), and finishes by promoting the replacement of the Social Security system with “personal retirement accounts”. None of these items is in any way connected to the others; it’s as if the graf were a dumping ground for politically attractive slogans for which there would otherwise have been no home in the speech. Given the actions of the Bush Admin over the past three years, it’s impossible to believe that any of it but the opening and the close is sincere.

The close, however, does contain the “ownership” meme that conservative pundits have been pushing as an excuse for destroying Social Security. That it made it into the SOTU may be significant–or it may just be a sop to the base. The Bush Admin has been pursuing a different path to the eventual elimination of SS–robbing it blind. Every year of Bush’s presidency, tens of $billions$ of dollars have been taken from the SS Trust Fund and used to pay the govt’s operating expenses. With the Iraq war continuing, more tax cuts, and Bush’s proposed spending increases, never mind the pork the Congress tacks on, if Junior wins a second term the SS Fund could be bankrupt in a few years, the whole thing moved into the general fund to cover part of the deficit. They’re doing this unilaterally, so it doesn’t really matter whether people are convinced by the “ownership” slogan or not.

And we should limit the burden of government on this economy by acting as good stewards of taxpayer dollars. In two weeks, I will send you a budget that funds the war, protects the homeland and meets important domestic needs, while limiting the growth in discretionary spending to less than four percent. This will require that Congress focus on priorities, cut wasteful spending and be wise with the people’s money. By doing so, we can cut the deficit in half over the next five years.

As Kevin Drum at Calpundit shows, this graf is pure financial bushwah. Even Junior knows that everything he wants will not reduce the deficit but expand it exponentially. Read Kevin’s analysis–it’s an eye-opener. This promise to keep spending growth limited to 4% while at the same time cutting the deficit can only be labeled what it is: the 4th demonstrable lie in the SOTU.

This graf is little more than a stalking-horse. The phrase “cut wasteful spending” is conservative code for the continued extraction of any money intended for social programs, poverty programs, nutrition programs, etc, from the budget until there’s nothing left. Nothing new about this–same old Republican policy, same old excuse for it: money meant for people is a “waste”; money to prop up business is “sound fiscal policy”.

Tonight I also ask you to reform our immigration laws, so they reflect our values and benefit our economy. I propose a new temporary worker program to match willing foreign workers with willing employers, when no Americans can be found to fill the job. This reform will be good for our economy — because employers will find needed workers in an honest and orderly system. A temporary worker program will help protect our homeland — allowing border patrol and law enforcement to focus on true threats to our national security. I oppose amnesty, because it would encourage further illegal immigration and unfairly reward those who break our laws. My temporary worker program will preserve the citizenship path for those who respect the law, while bringing millions of hardworking men and women out from the shadows of American life.

A political con for the purpose of attracting Hispanic votes, the “guest worker” proposal has little or no chance for passage and will probably be forgotten as soon as the election is over by everyone except the Hispanics who believed he meant it.

Our nation’s health care system, like our economy, is also in a time of change. Amazing medical technologies are improving and saving lives. This dramatic progress has brought its own challenge, in the rising costs of medical care and health insurance. Members of Congress, we must work together to help control those costs and extend the benefits of modern medicine throughout our country.

Meeting these goals requires bipartisan effort — and two months ago, you showed the way. By strengthening Medicare and adding a prescription drug benefit, you kept a basic commitment to our seniors: You are giving them the modern medicine they deserve.

Starting this year, under the law you passed, seniors can choose to receive a drug discount card, saving them 10 to 25 percent off the retail price of most prescription drugs — and millions of low-income seniors can get an additional $600 to buy medicine. Beginning next year, seniors will have new coverage for preventive screenings against diabetes and heart disease, and seniors just entering Medicare can receive wellness exams.

In January of 2006, seniors can get prescription drug coverage under Medicare. For a monthly premium of about $35, most seniors who do not have that coverage today can expect to see their drug bills cut roughly in half. Under this reform, senior citizens will be able to keep their Medicare just as it is, or they can choose a Medicare plan that fits them best — just as you, as members of Congress, can choose an insurance plan that meets your needs. And starting this year, millions of Americans will be able to save money tax-free for their medical expenses, in a health savings account.

Taken together, this sequence of grafs simply outlines the Republican view of the benefits of the new Medicare drug coverage. The only important sentence is the last one:

I signed this measure proudly, and any attempt to limit the choices of our seniors, or to take away their prescription drug coverage under Medicare, will meet my veto.

In an echo of the personal responsibility he assumed for the nation’s children, here, through the “I”, he does the same with seniors, presenting himself as their only champion in the battle with a Congress that wants to take away their new drug benefit. Not that anyone in Congress has suggested taking it away…. At least when Don Quixote tilted at windmills, he believed they were giants; Junior knows they’re windmills and his tilting is strictly for show.

On the critical issue of health care, our goal is to ensure that Americans can choose and afford private health care coverage that best fits their individual needs. To make insurance more affordable, Congress must act to address rapidly rising health care costs. Small businesses should be able to band together and negotiate for lower insurance rates, so they can cover more workers with health insurance — I urge you to pass association health plans. I ask you to give lower-income Americans a refundable tax credit that would allow millions to buy their own basic health insurance. By computerizing health records, we can avoid dangerous medical mistakes, reduce costs, and improve care. To protect the doctor-patient relationship, and keep good doctors doing good work, we must eliminate wasteful and frivolous medical lawsuits. And tonight I propose that individuals who buy catastrophic health care coverage, as part of our new health savings accounts, be allowed to deduct 100 percent of the premiums from their taxes.

A government-run health care system is the wrong prescription. By keeping costs under control, expanding access and helping more Americans afford coverage, we will preserve the system of private medicine that makes America’s health care the best in the world.

These are the most mind-boggling grafs in the speech. In them, camouflaged by language that asserts the opposite, Bush does nothing less than propose to replace public health insurance with individual “health savings accounts”. IOW, he has just expanded the on-going Republican plan to shift govt-funded programs onto the backs of individuals by including health care. He has taken one step nearer the conservative goal of getting the govt out of the business of protecting the weak, the poor, and the community as a whole, and toward making the individual bear the brunt of economic changes and the vagaries of the business cycle. It is a signal that if he is re-elected, Medicaid and Medicare may go the way of the dodo, replaced by a social Darwinism that lets the strong feed on the weak. Very very disturbing grafs.

We are living in a time of great change — in our world, in our economy, and in science and medicine. Yet some things endure — courage and compassion, reverence and integrity, respect for differences of faith and race. The values we try to live by never change. And they are instilled in us by fundamental institutions, such as families, and schools, and religious congregations. These institutions — the unseen pillars of civilization — must remain strong in America, and we will defend them.

We must stand with our families to help them raise healthy, responsible children. And when it comes to helping children make right choices, there is work for all of us to do.

These two grafs set up the next major portion of the speech which deals with a dearly beloved conservative doctrine–family values. To wit:

One of the worst decisions our children can make is to gamble their lives and futures on drugs. Our government is helping parents confront this problem, with aggressive education, treatment and law enforcement. Drug use in high school has declined by 11 percent over the past two years. Four hundred thousand fewer young people are using illegal drugs than in the year 2001. In my budget, I have proposed new funding to continue our aggressive, community-based strategy to reduce demand for illegal drugs. Drug testing in our schools has proven to be an effective part of this effort. So tonight I propose an additional $23 million for schools that want to use drug testing as a tool to save children’s lives. The aim here is not to punish children, but to send them this message: We love you, and we don’t want to lose you.

–He proposes money for drug testing in school, a very controversial issue but one that plays well with his base.

To help children make right choices, they need good examples. Athletics play such an important role in our society, but, unfortunately, some in professional sports are not setting much of an example. The use of performance-enhancing drugs like steroids in baseball, football and other sports is dangerous, and it sends the wrong message — that there are short cuts to accomplishment, and that performance is more important than character. So tonight I call on team owners, union representatives, coaches and players to take the lead, to send the right signal, to get tough and to get rid of steroids now.

–He wants athletes to stop taking steroids because they’re “not setting much of an example.” Both these first two grafs are intended to portray him (note the use of “I”) as a stalwart drug fighter without requiring either him or his Admin to do much about the drug problem. They’re all rhetoric designed to establish his bona-fides for the next couple of grafs where the real meat is.

To encourage right choices, we must be willing to confront the dangers young people face — even when they are difficult to talk about. Each year, about 3 million teenagers contract sexually transmitted diseases that can harm them, or kill them, or prevent them from ever becoming parents. In my budget, I propose a grass-roots campaign to help inform families about these medical risks. We will double federal funding for abstinence programs, so schools can teach this fact of life: Abstinence for young people is the only certain way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases. Decisions children make now can affect their health and character for the rest of their lives. All of us — parents, schools, government — must work together to counter the negative influence of the culture, and to send the right messages to our children

One of the more hypocritical grafs. “[W]e must be willing to confront the dangers young people face — even when they are difficult to talk about” is followed by a transparent refusal to confront anything and a flat lie: “Abstinence for young people is the only certain way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases”. This isn’t true and he knows it, but he would rather let the kids he is so superficially concerned abouit die rather than utter the word “condom” and alienate his abstinence-only base. His hypocrisy doubles as a Trojan horse,. though, because astinence-only programs are offered solely by fundamentalist religious groups–public and private health services are much more realistic and concerned far more with the health and safety of their patients than with clinging to fundamentalist religious doctrine.

Having snuck religious groups money through the back door, he finishes by taking the standard conservative shot at “the culture”–right-wing code for Hollywood and the rest of the entertainment industry. Not that they don’t deserve to take shots, but Bush is simply aiming a gratuitous swipe at the nearest scapegoat.

And now we come to what he was leading up to the whole time:

A strong America must also value the institution of marriage. I believe we should respect individuals as we take a principled stand for one of the most fundamental, enduring institutions of our civilization. Congress has already taken a stand on this issue by passing the Defense of Marriage Act, signed in 1996 by President Clinton. That statute protects marriage under federal law as the union of a man and a woman, and declares that one state may not redefine marriage for other states. Activist judges, however, have begun redefining marriage by court order, without regard for the will of the people and their elected representatives. On an issue of such great consequence, the people’s voice must be heard. If judges insist on forcing their arbitrary will upon the people, the only alternative left to the people would be the constitutional process. Our nation must defend the sanctity of marriage.

The outcome of this debate is important — and so is the way we conduct it. The same moral tradition that defines marriage also teaches that If judges insist on forcing their arbitrary will upon the people, the only alternative left to the people would be the constitutional process..

A couple of interesting things in these two grafs. First, there is a mixed message here: on the one hand, he approves of the law which doesn’t allow any state to ‘define marriage” for any other state; on the other, “[a]ctivist judges…have begun redefining marriage by court order.” Since this is an obvious reference to the recent decision of the Mass State Supreme Court that the State Constitution allows gay marriage–a clear example of a state defining marriage for itself–he should have no problem with this. But he does. In this instance, the Federal govt, he says, has the right to do what that same Federal govt has forbidden states to do: overrule a state’s own definition of marriage. As dicey as this is, it needs some kind of rationalization. He offers it by asserting that the courts have acted “without regard for the will of the people and their elected representatives.”

What’s interesting here is his assumption, ignoring the Consitutional mandate that separates the Judicial Branch from the other two in order to ensure its independence from them, that the role of the court is to obey the will of the Legislature. In yet another accidental peek into the president’s true beliefs, we find a fairly disturbing lack of knowledge–or interest–in the time-honored traditions of American democracy. Having sworn at his inauguration to uphold the Constitution, he is here defying it, revealing his contempt for its quaint notion of an independent judiciary and casting scorn on “activist judges” who disregard the will of politicians.

The second is this sentence: “If judges insist on forcing their arbitrary will upon the people, the only alternative left to the people would be the constitutional process.” Not only has he abandoned his supposed respect for the states’ right to decide the issue for themselves, he threatens them with a Constitutional Amendment if they make a decision he doesn’t like.

Taken together, this is the most imperial and anti-democratic section of the speech. He openly rejects the Constitutional separation of powers and then, like an emperor or dictator, threatens the satraps if they don’t comply with his wishes. All that’s missing from this graf is the threat of sending troops to enforce his command.

I realize I’m overstating the case somewhat, but his cavalier attitude toward the Constitution–“I’ll obey what I approve of and ignore what I don’t”–is both a serious breach of his oath of office and a dangerous signal that he won’t let a little thing like the law stop him from doing what he wants to do. The arrogance and self-satisfaction in this stance is frightening and exceeded only by the hypcrisy of closing the section with a paean to the sanctity of the individual when he has just denied that sanctity to a whole class of people, so “each individual has dignity and value in God’s sight”–except if they’re gay, at which point they’re not to be allowed either dignity or value. A sad, angering, scary couple of grafs.

It is also important to strengthen our communities by unleashing the compassion of America’s religious institutions. Religious charities of every creed are doing some of the most vital work in our country — mentoring children, feeding the hungry, taking the hand of the lonely. Yet government has often denied social service grants and contracts to these groups, just because they have a cross or Star of David or crescent on the wall. By executive order, I have opened billions of dollars in grant money to competition that includes faith-based charities. Tonight I ask you to codify this into law, so people of faith can know that the law will never discriminate against them again.

In this graf the Trojan horse opens wide and we see the troops hidden inside. Rather brazenly he asks the Congress to join him in defying the Constitutionally-mandated separation of church and state by passing a law that will allow Federal money to be funneled to religious organizations. As usual in this speech, he acknowledges neither the limits of his request nor the legal ramifications, merely asserting that not to do what he asks is “discrimination” and adding that he’s doing it anyway, “by executive order”, much as a Roman Emperor might have asked the Senate for permission to do something while making it clear he intended to order it done whether they agreed or not.

In the past, we have worked together to bring mentors to the children of prisoners, and provide treatment for the addicted, and help for the homeless. Tonight I ask you to consider another group of Americans in need of help. This year, some 600,000 inmates will be released from prison back into society. We know from long experience that if they can’t find work, or a home, or help, they are much more likely to commit more crimes and return to prison. So tonight, I propose a four-year, $300 million Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative to expand job training and placement services, to provide transitional housing, and to help newly released prisoners get mentoring, including from faith-based groups. America is the land of the second chance — and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.

Interesting. So important is it to him to find a way to get money to his fundamentalist Christian supporters that he’s willing to defy the three-strikes-you’re-out, prison-is-about-punishment-not-rehabilitation mindset of his rad-con base. There are implications here, but they’re so slight at this point that I don’t want to get into them yet. Put this in the back of your mind for now, but don’t forget about it. I think this may mean something. I think it may be important.

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