Bush’s final State of the Union

One of Bush’s most promising State of the Union proposals has been forgotten.

On Monday night, President George W. Bush took the podium for the last time to give the annual State of the Union address to a country anxious about economic trouble on the horizon, mired in two wars with no end in sight, and increasingly turning its attention away from him and toward the race for his successor.

His remarks were more cautious than in previous years – no missions to Mars or harebrained schemes to privatize Social Security were announced – but we think it important to note one of the most promising proposals that Bush has ever had, one that, like so much else, has become a casualty of his misadventure in Iraq.

When he gave his 2002 State of the Union Speech only three months after 9-11, with the nation rallied to his side and asking what it could do, Bush asked Americans to devote at least two years, or 4,000 hours, of their lives to public service. Even though it was announced on national television to the whole country, this goal would probably be news to most Americans, as that year’s State of the Union address also featured the phrase “Axis of Evil” – and there can be little doubt about which one has occupied more of the president’s time and political capital.

His proposal called for doubling the size of the Peace Corps, expanding AmeriCorps (its domestic equivalent) and creating a new arm of the White House, the USA Freedom Corps to head the charge. Instead, the initiative fizzled when it became clear the war in Iraq would consume much of the oxygen in Washington, D.C., and the president has seldom mentioned it since 2002. All the stated goals have fallen short or have used part-time AmeriCorps workers to inflate their totals, according to a New York Times report.

This was a failure to take the moment of national unity after 9-11 that is now only a distant memory and ask Americans to sacrifice a bit for the common good. Bush has only asked military families to sacrifice in prosecuting his wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he has spent more energy talking about the need for tax cuts instead of volunteering that could have fostered his goal of “a culture of service, citizenship and responsibility.” Like everything else, we hope the next White House occupant does a better job than the current one.