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Oregon Editors Say

Speech better than policies

Bush's address was more about the campaign than the state of the union

The Oregonian

No law says a president has to paint a completely dreary picture during a prime-time address to Congress. And granted, the Bush administration can take credit for achieving real victories in the war against terror.

But after listening to President Bush's upbeat assessment of the state of the union Tuesday, it's hard to escape the feeling that the president's speechwriters have put the whole thing together better than his policy-makers.

The president talked of a strong, confident nation. In many important ways, that is true enough. But a country that is still fighting two difficult and dangerous wars, just coming out of a recession that cost a couple of million jobs, and facing breathtaking health care cost increases may feel just a little more battered than confident.

That is why it was also hard to escape the conclusion that Tuesday's State of the Union speech was more the opening round of a long campaign season than the president's annual report to the nation.

We agree that the United States has achieved successes in the war against terrorism and that the destruction of Saddam Hussein's regime is a good thing. We agree, too, that the United States faces grave dangers from terrorism.

— But no assessment of Iraq is complete without challenging the president's initial public justifications for the war and without knowing exactly how the administration intends to proceed from here. Likewise, no assessment of the war on terror is complete without looking at all of its strategic consequences.

Yes, Libya's recent change of heart is important. But it's more important to know how the United States can more effectively promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The war on terror will not transform the Middle East until that conflict is resolved. The United States must play a key role in resolving it.

On domestic issues, even a good speechwriter would have trouble matching the president's Tuesday rhetoric with reality this year. The president suggested that making last year's tax cuts permanent would solidify the economic recovery. He pointed to low interest rates, low inflation and increasing manufacturing growth late in 2003 as evidence.

But the evidence of the past two decades is mixed on the value of tax cuts. It would have been helpful, it seems to us, if the president had talked more specifically about how he hopes to keep his promise of halving the federal deficit in five years. It would also be interesting to know how he squares his call for more spending with those record deficits.

While it may also be true that the settlements in malpractice lawsuits help push health care costs higher, nobody thinks capping them will solve the problem. The president needed to talk seriously about the real drivers of health care cost increases, such as drug costs.

This week kicked off the presidential campaign, so its hard to blame the president for putting a good face on things. But it's also hard to escape the feeling that this state of the union message was really more about the state of the campaign.