Bush plays smallball

The president’s State of the Union address is the ceremonial start of the year in the national capital, and this time it marked the symbolic start of President Bush’s final year in office.

In terms of accomplishment, it is also likely to be a very short year for the president. His address from the House chamber came in the midst of a contentious campaign to succeed him and the extent of the lawmakers’ distraction now and for the rest of the year was evident in the attention paid on the floor to Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and Edward Kennedy.

What the president doesn’t get accomplished by the congressional recess this summer very likely won’t get done at all. It’s possible that his signal legislative achievement of 2008 will be passage of the hastily thrown together economic stimulus bill, an unpleasant reminder that he started his last year in office with a sour economy and a potential recession.

Bush took office seven years ago promising bold, dramatic initiatives. He would, he said, play no “small ball,” baseball speak for incremental progress. And in successive State of the Union speeches he did push his big ideas — remaking the Mideast to remove the threat of terror, massive reform of Social Security and the immigration laws, a thorough overhaul of the tax code.

Of those, only the Mideast has been remade, and not necessarily to our liking. The president insists the military surge in Iraq has worked, and by a number of measures it has. But the jury is still out as to whether it is a gunpoint peace that will last only as long as U.S. troops are there in the numbers necessary to enforce it.

The Bush White House fiercely resists comparisons with its predecessor. Both presidents faced a North Korea reneging on a nuclear agreement and the collapse of a promising Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

President Bill Clinton ended his term seeking small measures that Bush supporters derisively dismissed as “school uniforms.” Now Bush, too, is seeking modest bipartisan measures — expansion of existing programs like his African AIDS initiative and No Child Left Behind, passage of a trio of trade treaties, some tinkering with the GI Bill.

The president promised that his last year would be a “sprint to the finish line.” It’s shaping up as more of a shuffle.

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