Experts and Politicians React to Bush’s State of the Union Address
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PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Tonight the state of our union is strong, and together we will make it stronger. (Applause)
KWAME HOLMAN: It took President Bush 53 minutes to deliver his state of the union address last night in the chamber of the House of Representatives, and it took him another eight minutes just to make his way out the door.
By then, dozens of senators and House members already were in nearby Statuary Hall offering instant analysis of the president’s speech to the broadcast media.
Marsha Blackburn is a two-term House Republican from Tennessee.
REP. MARSHA BLACKBURN: What I think was so interesting about the speech is how he started with freedom and started talking about freedom and used that as the premise that he was working from. A civil tone is important; exercising our freedom is important, doing that in an orderly way.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: In a system of two parties, two chambers and two elected branches, there will always be differences and debate. But even tough debates can be conducted in a civil tone and our differences cannot be allowed to harden into anger. To confront the great issues before us, we must act in a spirit of goodwill and respect for one another, and I will do my part.
REP. MARSHA BLACKBURN: I was very pleased to see him put so much emphasis on the war on terror and go back and reestablish in everyone’s minds why we’re there and why it is imperative that we win.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: By allowing radical Islam to work its will, by leaving an assaulted world to fend for itself, we would signal to all that we no longer believe in our own ideals or even in our own courage. But our enemies and our friends can be certain: The United States will not retreat from the world, and we will never surrender to evil. (Applause)
KWAME HOLMAN: Ten-term Democrat Louise Slaughter represents parts of Buffalo and Rochester, New York.
KWAME HOLMAN: What resonated most with you?
REP. LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Very little, but the truth is that I didn’t expect him to be able to say much. There wasn’t much he could say if you talk about the Middle East.
The secretary of state admitted she didn’t have any idea Hamas was going to win the election in Palestine and the Iraqi election didn’t go all that well either. The deficit is climbing.
Wiretapping, I thought again, I will certainly give him “A” for consistency; he’s going to insist forever here that he’s absolutely right and that everybody else did it too.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: So to prevent another attack based on authority given to me by the Constitution and by statute, I have authorized a terrorist surveillance program to aggressively pursue the international communications of suspected al-Qaida operatives and affiliates to and from America.
Previous presidents have used the same constitutional authority I have, and federal courts have approved the use of that authority.
REP. LOUISE SLAUGHTER: But all the best minds say that simply is not so and those of us who passed the law did not intend him to do that.
KWAME HOLMAN: House Republican Zach Wamp sits on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy.
What resonated most with you?
REP. ZACH WAMP: Well, no question, in this speech, because I’m a pro-alternative energy Republican, this is a big change. This is a big shift; this is a recognition that oil is a big problem for us, and we’ve got to do something about it.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world. The best way to break this addiction is through technology.
We will increase our research in better batteries for hybrid and electric cars, and in pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen. We will also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn but from wood chips, and stalks, or switch grass. Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years. (Applause)
REP. ZACH WAMP: You know, he’s going to end up being known by foreign policy. It was a vintage foreign policy Bush speech. The big change was oil — when you mention it by name and say that we have got a problem and we’ve got to do something about it. And even setting a 2025 goal, that’s the first time we’re talking about 20 years and we’re 75 percent energy independent.
KWAME HOLMAN: Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson is completing his first term in the Senate.
SEN. BEN NELSON: He also focused on what I think are some of the most important domestic issues, health care for small businesses and for Americans.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We will strengthen health savings accounts, making sure individuals and small business employees can buy insurance with the same advantages that people working for big businesses now get. (Applause)
SEN. BEN NELSON: Also, pursuing the importance of legal immigration, as the president said, we want to be able to bring people in for jobs here on a legal basis.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We must have stronger immigration enforcement and border protection. (Applause)
And we must have a rational, humane guest worker program that rejects amnesty, allows temporary jobs for people who seek them legally and reduces smuggling and crime at the border. (Applause)
KWAME HOLMAN: Seven-term House Democrat Mel Watt of North Carolina:
REP. MEL WATT: Well, I think the immigration issue is obviously an important issue in which the president is at odds with members of his own party that’s not something that we’re going to hold up, but you’ve got to wonder whether the president is going to be able to do anything with that issue.
You make it sound like something is going to happen, when it’s really not happening; you make it sound like you’re going to provide health care, when, you know, 850,000 more people went without health care last year than the year before.
It makes it hard for me to sit with a straight face and say, you know, let’s focus on the content of what the president is saying because I just know most of the things are not going to take place.
KWAME HOLMAN: Republican Gordon Smith is a two-term senator from Oregon.
SEN. GORDON SMITH: I loved his comments on education and preparing in math and science.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Our greatest advantage in the world has always been our educated, hard-working, ambitious people, and we are going to keep that edge.
Tonight I announce an American competitiveness initiative, to encourage innovation throughout our economy and to give our nation’s children a firm grounding in math and science. (Applause)
SEN. GORDON SMITH: If that’s a partisan issue, we sure shouldn’t allow it to be one because our country is going to need to that to prepare for the future.
But I really liked the tonality tonight. He extended an olive branch I think to the political discourse. I think we need to reach and take that branch and figure out how to work out the disagreements on the harder issues like health care and energy and national security and do it in a way that’s more appropriate to our great nation.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: And so we move forward, optimistic about our country, faithful to its cause, and confident of victories to come. May God bless America. (Cheers and applause)
JIM LEHRER: And how it looked to three former presidential advisors who were with us Monday night. Thomas “Mack” McLarty was President Clinton’s chief of staff; Kenneth Duberstein was chief of staff for President Reagan; and David Gergen served as an advisor for Presidents Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Reagan, Ford and Nixon.
David Gergen, do you agree with Sen. Smith that the president tried to change the tone of the discourse in Washington?
DAVID GERGEN: I think he offered rhetorical efforts to change the tone, Jim, but the — you know, in truth, if you’re really going to change the tone, you have to be willing to change some policies and reach compromises. That was not evident in the president’s approach last night.
We’ve heard these rhetorical flourishes now in every state of the union from presidents of the both parties: I really want to work with the other side, here are some olive branches, let’s work together. And then about a week later, they’re fighting like cats and dogs. You’ve got to put something on the table.
Had the president come in, for example, and said, “Look, I’m willing — if you Democrats will sit down and bargain with me on entitlement programs, I’m willing to put aside some of my preferences for tax cuts, and let’s see if we can’t strike a deal,” that would have been bipartisanship.
JIM LEHRER: Ken Duberstein, do you agree it takes more than words if you want to have bipartisanship?
KEN DUBERSTEIN: Oh, of course it does, but I think the important thing last night with the wind very much in his face that he probably hit a double; he didn’t get it out of the ballpark. He may get a triple because of the perpetual negativity of the Democrats.
What I heard last night was optimism, was positiveness, was a willingness to say we have to find ways to work out, and I will try. I think that’s what the American people were looking for as well.
But remember, as we talked about on Monday night, fundamentally, this speech was not a legacy speech but a speech to the Republican base. And by leading as he did on national security, I think he really firmed up his base so that the issue in November, which plays to Bush and the Republican strength, is in fact the war on terrorism, is in fact what’s going on in the Middle East. And I think that is why it was a really strong speech for President Bush.
JIM LEHRER: Mack McLarty do, you agree that the real audience he had last night was his base, and he was trying to energize them for the elections in November?
THOMAS “MACK” McLARTY: That was certainly part of it, Jim, and I think he did a pretty good job of that. I think a picture is always worth 1,000 words. I think shaking hands with the newly confirmed Judge Alito was a straight message to his base, and I think he did much of what Ken talked about. I would say a single but not a double.
He did, Jim, if you’ll recall, we talked a lot about his being realistic, his tone was much more somber, much more realistic, much more purposeful. He really tried to convey optimism. He’s got a hard case to make there with the country still feeling he’s on the wrong track.
JIM LEHRER: And he said that a lot of people didn’t — didn’t feel good about the — I’m paraphrasing, but essentially said I understand why people don’t feel so good about things right now. Was that a major break for him do you think?
THOMAS “MACK” McLARTY: I think it was. I think it shows a real sensitivity–
KEN DUBERSTEIN: Reality.
THOMAS “MACK” McLARTY: Exactly, and of course for a Texas oil man to stay we’re addicted to oil, that’s a big shift, too, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. David, how did you read that? How did you read this what he conceded or didn’t concede or what he should have conceded or didn’t concede, whatever?
DAVID GERGEN: Well, on Monday night, I was arguing of one danger was being too Pollyannaish. On that score, I think he was careful not to be that, and I give him credit for that.
But I have to say that, you know, getting a single or double, you know, is not getting the score. You may bring half the country with you, but if you don’t bring the other half of the country with you, you’re not moving forward. From my point of view he had a — I applaud the president for what he did math and science last night. I thought that was his most important new initiative; and he deserves a lot of credit for going forward with that because it’s really important.
But, overall, Jim, I have to say that the rhetoric domestically was soaring but the proposals were modest. He doesn’t have any money left because, if he would get rid of the tax cuts, he’d have more money available, but he doesn’t have any money left to do anything.
And both parties right now are failing to provide the leadership to meet the storms that are coming. And I don’t think either party is willing to do the kind of hard things — if we’re really going to do something about energy security as the president talked about last night, it’s not enough to say let’s do hydrogen, let’s ask for things 20 years down the road.
We have got global warming coming on us very fast, and if you really are serious about energy you talk about gas taxes and raising you talk about raising CAFÉ standards, and you talk about conservation. And those things are just not part agenda.
So it’s nice to hear these things, but if you’re serious about trying to meet the storms that are coming in the future, we’ve got to do a lot more as a country.
JIM LEHRER: Ken, what about that, a double just isn’t good enough?
KEN DUBERSTEIN: I think a double is pretty strong, especially when you see the Democrats react with their perpetual negativity. But I think what David may be missing — I agree on the math and science. I agree on the domestic side, but we all agreed on Monday night that the first 15 minutes of the speech were absolutely crucial.
And, you know, as the White House put out that there were 30 drafts, really, what he delivered, you could hear Bush. He was comfortable in that speech, especially the first half of it, where it was all about national security.
And I think the American people and certainly the Republican base heard all the important arguments on national security with a tone of reality.
On the domestic side, if you’re talking about a base vote, you are talking about making the tax cuts permanent. He said it, and he said it explicitly.
JIM LEHRER: But what about David — go ahead.
KEN DUBERSTEIN: Go ahead.
JIM LEHRER: No, no, you go ahead, Ken, finish.
KEN DUBERSTEIN: But I think the key to the speech was the tone, the purposefulness on national security that in fact really carries the whole line.
JIM LEHRER: Well, what about David Gergen’s point that in a State of the Union address, it’s not enough to just address your base and only half of the people of the United States, you ought to address all of them?
KEN DUBERSTEIN: And I think the Bush philosophy is to make sure to get 50.01 in order to govern. He is not looking for sixty-five or seventy. He’s looking for 50.01. And I think he did that and did it damn effectively last night.
In the sense of the base, and explaining a rationale, as we talked about on Monday night, this was a leadership speech, and what you heard was a very bold leader who was making his arguments and saying to the American people, and to his base, this is the way we’re going to go forward.
JIM LEHRER: Mack McLarty, Ken Duberstein and others have said that the president is always helped because the Democrats are so negative.
What did you think about Tim Kaine’s major point of raising the issue of simple competence, managing the Government of the United States, which he came back to several times, was that effective?
THOMAS “MACK” McLARTY: I believe it was, Jim. I think people do want the government to support them and help make them and future generations’ lives better, and I think that was part of Gov. Kaine’s point. I thought he was quite effective there — I thought a better way, we can do better.
I think the president was solid in his address, Jim, but the country wants real leadership to move the country forward. I don’t think this speech did that; perhaps if it can be followed up with specific proposals, congressional victories, but this speech didn’t really move the country forward. Solidifying base is fine, but you need to do more than that at this point in time.
JIM LEHRER: Why do you believe he didn’t go any further than he did? Do you think the — just the politics of the day caused him to be — to hold back?
THOMAS “MACK” McLARTY: I believe he was intent, Jim, on being realistic in his — both his substance and his tone, and I think he was, and he was much less strident, much more conciliatory.
But there really weren’t any bold ideas put forward, whether he felt this was not the time or place.
I did think he was strong on security and that does play to his strength. But, of course, I think he’s very limited from a budget standpoint and David touched on the tax cuts, with the large deficit and funding the war in Iraq, he’s only got so much room to maneuver, and it’s not very much.
JIM LEHRER: David Gergen, what did you think about the points that Ken Duberstein made about the Democrats, and also then what Tim Kaine said on behalf of the Democrats last night?
DAVID GERGEN: Well, first on Tim Kaine, surprisingly effective. Usually, these responses by the Democrats are drowsy affairs. We all go to sleep but Tim Kaine was a fresh voice and low key. And it worked. There was some homespun authenticity about him, which I think was pretty effective. And it’s not that the Democratic Party has come up with a series of proposals to oppose the president. They have not. They’re not showing leadership either.
But my good friend, Ken, he’s being very kind to the president. I respect that, he should be, but I just would underscore when he was chief of staff for Ronald Reagan, when Reagan was in trouble in the 40′s, one of the great contributions that he and Howard Baker and others made to the Reagan presidency was to rebuild that presidency, that he got back to 65 percent by the time he left office, and he was governing, he was able to be president of all the people, and I thought that was a better policy for Reagan, and Ken was a major part of that. And in my judgment it would be a better policy for this president.
JIM LEHRER: Ken Duberstein?
KEN DUBERSTEIN: But I really think the Bush philosophy, coming out of the 2000 election, is to say 60 percent is not realistic. 68 percent is not realistic. I am going to deal with it by getting 50.01. I’m going to go for one more vote than the other guys.
JIM LEHRER: But do you think that’s a good idea? Do you think that’s a good idea, or are you just saying that’s what he’s doing?
KEN DUBERSTEIN: No, I’m saying that’s what his philosophy –
JIM LEHRER: Do you support that? Do you think that’s –
KEN DUBERSTEIN: No, I grew up, as we all did, with the president trying to maximize his numbers. And, yet, the Bush people see the ceiling of 50.01, or 51 percent and say that’s the way they can max out, and they can govern, especially with a Republican House and Senate. But, Jim–
DAVID GERGEN: They can win elections -
JIM LEHRER: Go ahead, David.
KEN DUBERSTEIN: If you don’t mind –
DAVID GERGEN: Sure.
KEN DUBERSTEIN: I want to know what McLarty thought when President Bush talked about his father’s two favorite people, one of whom was Bill Clinton, and CNN, at least, put the camera on Hillary, and she looked like she was having indigestion.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. McLarty, sir, would you like to respond to Mr. Duberstein’s inquiry?
THOMAS “MACK” McLARTY: I don’t know Ken was asking questions tonight. No, I don’t think Ken’s description is correct. I think she did look very stern when he referred to President Clinton about the wiretapping and the NSA issue, but I think as far as the reference to President Bush and President Clinton, I think the country has liked that partnership on the tsunami and Katrina, and I think Sen. Clinton does as well.
JIM LEHRER: Back to you, Ken.
KEN DUBERSTEIN: Her facial expression wasn’t -
JIM LEHRER: Back to you, Ken Duberstein.
If I may ask one last question before we go in the few seconds, do you think there’s traction for the Democrats in this managing the government properly issue?
KEN DUBERSTEIN: No.
JIM LEHRER: That’s a few questions –
KEN DUBERSTEIN: No, I really don’t think so.
THOMAS “MACK” McLARTY: I would respectfully disagree.
DAVID GERGEN: I would too.
KEN DUBERSTEIN: I think this election is on national security. And –
JIM LEHRER: I don’t mean just the election, I mean just as an issue to put before the voters in a general way.
KEN DUBERSTEIN: Oh, I think managing the executive branch is, in fact, something that’s going to be on the Democratic agenda, but I don’t think it gets very much traction.
THOMAS “MACK” McLARTY: Jim, I think the two points there, if you look at the deficit, if you look at the response of FEMA and Katrina, those are two very specific areas in terms of managing the government to serve the people in this country. I think those issues resonate.
JIM LEHRER: All right. We’ll leave it there. Thank you all three very much; thanks for coming back.
DAVID GERGEN: Thank you.