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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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