The state of an agitated union


    The state of the union is fretful. President Bush acknowledged the
    public’s agitated state Tuesday night when he gave voice to growing
    concerns about the course of the nation he has led for five years.

    His credibility no longer the asset it once was, the president begged Americans’ indulgence for another chance to fix things.

    There
    is no shortage: the Iraq war, global terrorism, a nuclear Iran, a
    stingy global economy, skyrocketing health care costs, troubled U.S.
    schools, rising fuel costs, looming budget deficits and government
    corruption. All received presidential attention Tuesday night.

    In
    his fifth State of the Union address, Bush sought to balance his usual
    optimistic message with an odd-fitting acknowledgment that many
    Americans are suffering beneath a crush of change.

    “Fellow
    citizens, we have been called to leadership in a period of consequence.
    We have entered a great ideological conflict we did nothing to invite,”
    Bush said. “We see great changes in science and commerce that will
    influence all our lives. And sometimes it can seem that history is
    turning a wide arc, toward an unknown shore.”

    Unknown and uneasy.

    The problem for Bush is that few of these troubles are new. He’s had four years to ease people’s pain.

    Nearly
    46 million Americans have no health insurance, up nearly a million in
    the last year. Health care costs are increasing three or four times the
    rate of inflation.

    One of Bush’s first successes of his
    presidency was the 2002 No Child Left Behind, but parents still wonder
    about the quality of education in their schools. For the first time in
    generations, American children could face poorer prospects than their
    parents and grandparents did.

    Calling for less dependency on foreign oil is a State of the Union evergreen. Bush has done so in every address.

    The president who promised to be a uniter, not a divider, has presided over the hyper-polarization of Washington.

    Osama bin Laden has not been caught.

    Weapons of mass destruction were not found in Iraq.

    Victory in that war seems elusive, with more than 2,240 American troops killed _ and counting.

    The
    solutions Bush offered were relatively small-bore and wrapped in
    familiar language: tax cuts, health savings accounts, alternative
    energy research and investments in education to help keep America
    competitive with emerging democracies; and a stay-the-course approach
    to fighting terrorism.

    In a preview of his November election
    strategy, Bush accused foreign policy critics of “defeatism.” He also
    took a jab at critics in his own party on immigration and trade.

    Bush’s
    goal in the address was to acknowledge the public’s concerns, and if
    not solve their every problem, assure them he will try to do better.

    “He’s
    learned that the election is over _ and now he’s free to acknowledge
    that course change doesn’t necessarily mean a mistake,” said Republican
    consultant Rich Galen.

    Bush spoke of the global economy and
    suggested that competitors like China and India are making gains on the
    United States. “This creates an uncertainty, which makes it easier to
    feed people’s fears.”

    He said violent crime, abortions and
    teenage pregnancies are down in an era that has seen Americans take
    more responsibility _ “a revolution of conscience” he called it. “Yet
    many Americans, especially parents, still have deep concerns about the
    direction of our culture, and the health of our basic institutions,” he
    said.

    The mood of the nation is unsettled. Nearly 7 of 10
    American believes the country is headed in the wrong direction. Bush’s
    job approval ratings are among the lowest of his presidency.

    At
    the core of his political problems is his loss of credibility. Most
    voters believed he was a strong and principled leader in 2004, leading
    many to support him despite their opposition to the Iraq war and a
    sluggish economy.

    They are no longer giving him the benefit of the doubt.

    The
    proportion of Americans who credit the president with being honest and
    straightforward has fallen, as has the percentage who credit him for
    strong leadership qualities.

    Democrats hope those numbers don’t
    change after Bush’s address. “It’s an attempt to make himself healthy
    before the mid-terms,” said Democratic strategies Dane Strother.
    Americans may be anxious, he said, “but they’re not dumb.”

    ___

    Ron Fournier has covered the White House and politics for The Associated Press since 1992.

    © 2006 The Associated Press