Tuned In

A Less Bold Speech, In Hopes of a Less Interesting Year

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In the State of the Union address tonight, President George W. Bush said that America was "addicted to oil." He called for new teacher-training initiatives, congratulated new Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito and called on the country to compete vigorously with economic rivals like China and India.

Guess what? I wrote that whole paragraph before Bush started speaking. Much of the speech was leaked to news organizations so they could tip off viewers ahead of time. Note to the White House: you’re asking people to watch a man talk at a podium, in American Idol’s time slot, to a roomful of Washington stiffs. Your audience needs more suspense, not less.

Alas, the one opportunity for surprise vanished, and the drama happened off camera, when war protester and mother of a slain Iraq soldier, Cindy Sheehan, was arrested for wearing an antiwar T-shirt to the speech. (Speaking of Iraq, the President said that "there is a difference between responsible criticism that aims for success and defeatism that refuses to acknowledge anything but failure." Um, yeah. Apparently the latter gets the cuffs slapped on you.)

Tonight, it looked like drama was the last thing the President was after. Last year, he was rich with political capital, and tossed out bold, polarizing domestic proposals to the crowd like gold ducats from his pockets. Tonight–one big hurricane, a couple scandals and several vanished approval points later–he opened on a conciliatory note, asking the pols for "a civil tone… a spirit of goodwill and respect for one another." (In the spirit of that, Vice President Dick Cheney sat through the entire speech without telling a senator to _____ himself.)

President Bush talked about being on the offensive in Iraq and against terrorism, but he largely played defense on the podium, sticking to familiar themes and existing goals. (Make the tax cuts permanent; renew the Patriot Act.) His demeanor was serious but reserved, assured but cautious, steady but, well, steady.

It was an unfamiliar approach from an administration used to dealing with setbacks by doubling down and pushing for its most polarizing goals. We saw a flash of this side of Bush once, when he defended the NSA phone surveillance program. "If there are people inside our country who are talkin’ with al Qaeda, we want to know about it, because we will not sit back and wait to be hit again." He seemed, briefly, more comfortable: defiant, a little stubborn, conversational (that dropped "g" on "talkin’") and ready to tangle. This was the old, love ‘im or hate ‘im Bush, convinced that he has right on his side, and not too worried if 48% of the country doesn’t like it. This Bush drew the lustiest applause of the night from the Republican side of the room.

In general, though, the President seemed, after a stormy year, anxious not to unsettle his audience with the promise of more combativeness. (The applause broke along partisan lines anyway.) It was understandable, but a bolder posture might have positioned him as the positive, virile alternative to those scowling Democrats.

If nothing else, it would been better TV. As NBC’s Tim Russert noted, the State of the Union is a rare moment of unfiltered media for the president. It is also a rare chunk of uncommercial TV, demanding our attention for a solid hour and selling nothing but an agenda. (Are there sponsorship opportunities going wasted here? The Frito-Lay State of the Union? The Avis "We Try Harder" Democratic response?). But tonight the Commander in Chief was also the Programmer in Chief. And as TV programmers before him have discovered, when you’ve had a rough season, sometimes you can do worse than to put on a nice, familiar rerun.