For those of you who may have forgotten, the nation does still have a president. George W. Bush's final State of the Union address Monday night seemed, in some ways, to be the voice of someone long ignored, trying to be heard through the din of constant chattering among candidates hoping to replace him.
Three short years ago, Bush stood before a Republican majority in both houses and outlined an aggressive agenda for his second term. That outline included Social Security reform, comprehensive tax reform, a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage, tort reform, the establishment of an independent and viable government in Iraq and peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
At the time, we called it the most ambitious set of priorities since Franklin Delano Roosevelt and said if he accomplished even a few of these goals, he would be remembered as a gifted leader. Even the White House acknowledged that, as a second-term president, he would have only until the mid-term elections of 2006 before he would take on lame-duck status. Once that happened, real accomplishments would be difficult to achieve.
Now, no one can deny he waddles and quacks. His popularity is low, Democrats control Congress and many Americans are looking toward next Tuesday's multi-state primary and toward choosing new leadership in November. Each of his goals from three years ago either died in petty political squabbles or proved frustratingly elusive, and the nation now seems absorbed with the possibility of a recession.
And yet so much of that agenda three years ago remains vital to the long-term economic health of the nation. Those items hang over the nation like the dark clouds that invaded the Wasatch Front on Monday, ready to unleash a storm.
With a nod toward the looming recession, Bush urged Congress to quickly approve the stimulus package he and Democratic leaders have negotiated. That stimulus, the heart of which is a tax rebate, will be of questionable value. If history holds, the nation will be on the road to recovery before the checks are in hand.
But real reforms to the tax code and to Social Security would have long-term positive impacts on the economy, as would an immigration reform plan that allows workers to cross the border legitimately to fill jobs. Bush acknowledged that entitlement spending is "growing faster than we can afford," and he urged Congress to come up with its own ideas for solving the problem. It was a note of defiance from a president whose best plans have repeatedly been ignored, even by his own party.
He reserved his strongest statements for those who apply pork-barrel earmarks to spending bills, promising to veto them in the future and to order federal agencies to ignore them if they aren't explicitly written into law.
That's a good idea. The veto pen is one potent weapon Bush still possesses. Unfortunately, neither party seems serious about stopping earmarks.
Bush was correct that the war in Iraq has turned for the better since his troop surge, and he delivered an appropriately strong message to Iran. Unfortunately, his words are bound to be drowned out quickly by all those candidates trying to replace him.