Bush’s reactive, fire-fighting presidency at home

The president could address the greatest national priorities with a series of bold, proactive initiatives.

Darren Bernard

When President George W. Bush delivers his annual State of the Union address Tuesday, Americans should expect lots of information on Iran and North Korea, even more on al-Qaida, and a healthy devotion to the future of Iraq. But as a people that first elected the president for his ideals at home, Americans have come to expect too little from Bush’s domestic policies.

With increasingly volatile energy prices, soaring medical costs and an unsustainable budget deficit going unaddressed, it is easy to see why. A cursory glance at the past half-decade makes one wonder whether the president needs a national emergency to make a difference at home.

After Sept. 11, 2001, Bush pushed through the Patriot Act and created the Department of Homeland Security. After Enron and WorldCom collapsed, he signed the fraud-fighting Sarbanes-Oxley Act. The White House marketing team (read: Karl Rove) has even positioned Bush’s signature tax cuts more as a temporary elixir for economic “recovery” than as a long-term benefit of doing business in the United States.

Perhaps the lack of a coherent, positive domestic strategy has more to do with standard Washington foot-dragging and adverse circumstances than Bush’s own agenda.

The president has done some good for minorities, community colleges and unborn children. And to his credit, the president has managed to use the Republican-led Congress to push through a hodgepodge of environmental, Medicare and education laws.

But saving a couple of trees and making Viagra more affordable for old people are hardly triumphs that will ring through the ages. The greatest presidents ” Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy come to mind ” used their rhetoric to give Americans a sense of purpose and a unified vision for what life should be like. The current president has a grand message for those abroad; but his actions are far too hit-or-miss at home.

This is at least a mildly arresting fact inasmuch as the United States’ greatest challenge in upcoming decades (save fighting terrorism) will be adapting to the rise of India, China, Eastern Europe, and sooner or later, South and Central America. Keeping America competitive will require more than reactive legislation 15 years down the road.

“The sky is not falling, nothing horrible is going to happen today,” said Shirley Ann Jackson, the 2004 president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“But there is a quiet crisis in U.S. science and technology that we have to wake up to. The U.S. today is in a truly global environment, and those competitor countries are not only wide awake, they are running a marathon while we are running sprints.”

Many of the simplest, most refreshing changes are also vital to America’s long-term success. As Bush said coming into his second term, lawmakers need to radically simplify the very expensive, hopelessly complex tax code.

Outrageously high product-liability insurance costs are preventing U.S. businesses from competing with foreign firms. Medical costs need to be reduced, not just thrown off consumers and onto the government (a strategy encompassed in the 2003 Medicare Prescription Drug Act). This negative trade balance, I promise you Vice President Dick Cheney, is not sustainable.

Americans’ employment security can be protected with new portable pension plans and wage insurance laws, which would give workers, whose jobs are taken overseas, incentive to retrain and find new occupations. This means that community colleges and four-year universities need to be affordable and available to workers who need to start over.

Despite the passage of the much-touted 2005 Energy Policy Act, the situation in Iran shows just how hopelessly dependent the United States still is on foreign oil. The Bush administration could launch an urgent national mission to make the United States energy-independent by 2025 ” go to www.ei2025.org to see how it can be done. The development of clean coal, cold fusion and other power-generating technologies could turn into expensive exports to foreign governments. And a cross-country system of bullet or maglev trains would create cheap, fast and safe transportation technologies for generations to come, not to mention drastically reduce fossil fuel emissions.

In short, there are plenty of ambitious domestic projects the president could use to rekindle a sense of national unity and protect U.S. economic and technological superiority.

If presented as a coherent set of policies designed to keep America relevant in the 21st century, the initiatives would do well to save the president’s domestic legacy. The only real question is whether Bush would rather go down in history as a firefighter or an architect of America’s future.

Darren Bernard welcomes comments at [email protected]