Bush's surprisingly partisan speech.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 1 2006 12:03 AM

Whose Addiction?

Bush's surprisingly partisan speech.

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for Slate's free daily podcast on iTunes.

George Bush didn't go through a recovery program when he quit drinking, but surely he knows that the first step to shucking any dependency is admitting the problem. In his big speech, he attempted to do just that when he delivered the evening's most memorable line, "America is addicted to oil."

This was a switch from May of 2001 when Ari Fleischer, the president's spokesman, said that the right to consume massive energy resources was "an American way of life." I wasn't expecting any great departure after hearing Bush advisers and allies talk all day about "security" and "optimism" and about how the president was going to "change the tone" (again). But Bush did change the subject, at least a bit. Tomorrow we're all going to be talking about the "cellulosic ethanol" from corn stalks and "switch grass."

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Advertisement

Even if some of the president's proposals sounded like futuristic gobbledygook, we now seem poised for a national debate about American energy dependence. That's more than we've come to expect from these dreary annual clapfests. Democrats might actually engage on this topic, instead of responding in the purely political way they did to last year's Social Security proposal. For a president who came from the oil business and who still has many friends and backers in the industry, putting this initiative at the top of his agenda took some guts.

On the other hand, Bush put his case in a very Bushian way, presenting it as a pain-free alternative to the awful status quo. Only the corn stalk will suffer as we remake a huge sector of the economy and convert to clean, politically innocent fuel sources. None of us have to trade in our SUV's, drive less, or turn down the thermostat. The president says that in six years cars using the new ethanol will be competitive with gas-burning ones. By 2025, he pledges, America can reduce its dependence on Middle Eastern oil by 75 percent. His aides argue that technology makes this all possible. It sounds too good to be true, and almost certainly is.

And in that sense, Bush's dramatic new energy proposal had a very familiar ring. In his last State of the Union address, he outlined a bold plan for overhauling Social Security. He made private accounts sound great. He talked about the power of compound interest. He never talked about the costs of creating individual accounts or the trade-offs required for reform.

I'm already feeling a little tricked by the speech. Not because there wasn't much talk about the austere budget cuts that are coming in the next few days. I'm suspicious because of all the pre-speech talk about how the president would push for a new "civil tone." I assumed he would offer a more conciliatory one. Instead, Bush was harsher and more partisan than last year, when he was hoping to persuade some Democrats to support his signature proposal. He telegraphed his punches at the top of the speech where he framed the choices facing the country. In 2005, this is how he put it: "Members of Congress, the choices we make together will answer that question. Over the next several months, on issue after issue, let us do what Americans have always done, and build a better world for our children and our grandchildren."

Tonight he framed the choices in more starkly political terms, as he did during his 2004 election year State of the Union speech: "We will choose to act confidently in pursuing the enemies of freedom—or retreat from our duties in the hope of an easier life. We will choose to build our prosperity by leading the world economy—or shut ourselves off from trade and opportunity. In a complex and challenging time, the road of isolationism and protectionism may seem broad and inviting—yet it ends in danger and decline."

In 2005, Bush cast himself as groping for solutions to national problems together with Democrats. Tonight, he depicted those who oppose him as lazy, retreating, and negative. "There is a difference between responsible criticism that aims for success, and defeatism that refuses to acknowledge anything but failure," he said later in the speech. "Hindsight alone is not wisdom. And second-guessing is not a strategy." He welcomes criticism in theory. But in practice, he sees it all as defeatism, second-guessing, and 20-20 hindsight.

Politics is about defining your enemy. That's what the president did in his 2006 State of the Union. But change the tone? This year, there can't have been a person in the room who took that commitment seriously.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Altered State

The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender

What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?

Surprise! The Women Hired to Fix the NFL Think the NFL Is Just Great.

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Moneybox
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Altered State
Sept. 17 2014 11:51 PM The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
  Life
Outward
Sept. 17 2014 6:53 PM LGBTQ Luminaries Honored With MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 8:25 PM A New Song and Music Video From Angel Olsen, Indie’s Next Big Thing
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 9:00 PM Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 17 2014 11:48 PM Spanking Is Great for Sex Which is why it’s grotesque for parenting.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?