Decoding Bush's State of the Union address

by Andrea Bauer

January 31, 2003

In his January 28 State of the Union address, George W. Bush presented Congress and the U.S. with a Through-the-Looking-Glass world: Tax cuts for the super-wealthy benefit ordinary people! A program to increase logging of national forests is a "Healthy Forests Initiative"! And the most heavily armed and interventionist military power in the history of the planet "fights reluctantly" and "will not permit the triumph of violence in the affairs of men."

Out of Bush's hypocritical and demagogic speech, however, one thing at least rang true. For the people of the U.S. and the world, decisive days lie ahead. Notwithstanding Bush's often repeated willingness to go it alone to commit the U.S. to all-out hostilities against Iraq, his Tuesday performance was designed to shore up lagging support for his policies, especially toward Iraq, at home and abroad. Whether the majority of U.S. working people can decipher and resist Bush's con games is crucial to what happens next.

So, for antiwar and global-justice activists, a "deconstruction" of Bush's promises and threats is in order.

Hitting the notes of compassionate conservatism

During his hour-long talk, Bush played first Benevolent Patriarch and then Menacing Patriarch. In the first role, he put forward a grab bag of proposals and programs. These were carefully selected for mention with a view to generating some favorable public sentiment for Bush's 2004 budget before he lays out the whole thing on February 3. Notably missing was any talk of the inevitable cuts in the budget that will make life more difficult for working people and the poor, or of the cost of the enormous military buildup and looming war.

So what about the measures Bush means to take to "work for a prosperity that is broadly shared"?

* First and foremost, Bush promoted a second round of tax cuts, which will overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy, as the route to strengthening the economy and creating more jobs. We've been down this supply-side, "trickle-down" road before. The theory is that lowering taxes will spur investment. But after the Reagan tax cuts of the 1980s, net investment declined.

And the trillion-dollar tax cut George W. pushed through during his first year in office did nothing for the economy but drag it back into the land of soaring deficits. As for stimulating employment? Something like 2.3 million private-sector jobs have disappeared on Bush's watch.

* Faced with a massive crisis of access to healthcare, Bush made the decision to focus on two things in his speech: the need of seniors for prescription-drug benefits -- and, ludicrously, the costs of malpractice suits to the system.

As for the first, very real problem: Bush represented his new initiative as offering seniors the ability to choose a healthcare plan that provides prescription drugs. However, it seems that the "choice" that Bush would give the elderly is a terrible one. Seniors could stay on Medicare without prescription benefits, or they could opt for the insecurity of healthcare coverage through private HMOs. Bush neglected to mention that this proposal is just one feature of his overall drive to subject all of people's most basic needs to the untender mercies of the "free market" by privatizing healthcare, Social Security, pension funds, and everything in sight. He scornfully dismissed a nationalized healthcare system.

* Among the components of Bush's energy plan was the promise of $1.2 billion in research funding so the U.S. can develop non-polluting cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Practically misty-eyed, he offered up the vision of a child born today taking his or her very first car out for a hydrogen-powered spin 16 years from now.

Let's ignore for the moment that environmental cleanliness is not the only problem with a transportation system based on private cars (whose numbers in the U.S. in the past few decades have grown six times faster than those of the human population). Until recently, Detroit has refused to investigate and implement alternative energy technologies for vehicles because research and development costs money and there's no guaranteed quick payoff. (So much for the value of capitalism as fostering risk-taking and innovation by forward-thinking entrepreneurs.) In Japan, however, automakers already have fuel-cell cars on the roads, and the U.S. industry cannot afford to once again fall badly behind. Thus George Jr. intends to ease their way by letting the government assume some of the financial pain of "taking these cars from laboratory to showroom" -- while continuing to manfully resist stricter anti-pollution standards in the here and now.

* Moving on from his evident compassion for the auto industry, Bush singled out three groups in U.S. society as in special need -- "the homeless, the fatherless, and the addicted"!

With cuts in federal spending for education and social services straining state and local budgets beyond the breaking point and welfare as we knew it demolished, the need for government to make a dramatic course reversal is desperate. Instead, Bush urged a transformation of America "one heart and one soul at a time" through such paltry and morally minded measures as his Faith-Based Initiative, which slams right through the supposed separation of church and state, leaving a huge, gaping hole. Direct government aid may be good enough for Ford and GM, but when it comes to "our most vulnerable citizens," it's time to seek the help of the agents of a Higher Power.

Commentators have criticized Bush's speech for being light on specifics and details, which in many ways is true. But the opposite is also true: in talking about issues such as prescription-drug benefits for the elderly and "partial-birth" abortions, he spectacularly neglected to include his big plans for massively overhauling Medicare and completely rolling back abortion rights. He declined to note that his opposition to late-term abortion is just one front in a war to turn back the clock to the back-alley era before Roe v. Wade.

* For sheer gall, little in Bush's address could rival his pledge to add nearly $10 billion to the amount to be spent on providing relief for AIDS abroad over the next five years. Nearly 30 million people in Africa have AIDS, Bush said, yet only 50,000 receive the medicine they need. But why is this? Because U.S. pharmaceutical giants, supported by the government, refused for years either to sell anti-AIDS drugs to African countries at a low cost or waive their patent rights so that generic copycats could be produced on the continent. A large share of the devastation caused by AIDS in Africa has to be stamped Made in the USA.

Phony justification for a war for profits

In turning to the "war on terrorism," Bush cited a list of "key commanders" in Al Qaeda who have been arrested or, as he put it meaningfully, "are no longer a problem" -- a bloodthirsty statement that won a chilling roar of approval from Congress, whose members interrupted Bush's address 77 times with applause. Osama bin Laden's name did not come up during this self-congratulatory moment, nor during the rest of the speech.

On the domestic front, Bush advanced two new, futuristic-sounding security measures: Project Bioshield and the Terrorist Threat Integration Center. And he took credit for the 50,000 federal airport screeners recently put in place, even though he bitterly fought this development because he didn't want the screeners to be union. Bush has since blocked recognition of their union.

What he did not talk about was how the people of the U.S. are paying for the supposed war on terrorism not only with their tax dollars but with their civil liberties. We got no report on the status of the 2,000-plus Arab, Arab American and Muslim men rounded up and hidden away in INS detention centers -- the obvious germs of the 21st century corollary to the internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II. Nothing was said about the buildup of a police state and the steady erosion of due-process rights, attorney-client privilege, the right to freedom of belief and association, the right to privacy, the right to dissent. All of this was swept under the rhetoric.

In making his case against Saddam Hussein and for attacking Iraq, Bush made a fast, slippery connection between the war on terror and "outlaw regimes" that have nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons -- or want to have them! The possessors or potential possessors of these weapons could use them for terrorism, or they could pass them on to terrorists. Thus, these "outlaw regimes" -- no definition supplied -- have become "the gravest danger facing America and the world." Logic doesn't get any more tenuous than this.

To say that small, weak or war-ravaged countries like Iraq, North Korea, and Iran pose a threat to the U.S. superpower and its imperialist allies is to stand reality on its head. The U.S. remains the only country to have used nuclear weapons against another nation. Just in the past two decades it has launched military assaults against Grenada, Panama, Iraq, the Sudan, Somalia, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and more. In its "own backyard", the countries of Latin America are all too familiar with a combination of economic coercion, CIA sabotage, military intimidation and outright invasion. And Palestinians know that when Bush calls for "security for Israel" he means billions more U.S. dollars used to destroy or impoverish Arab villages.

With the U.S. Number One in world military spending, its expenditures in 2001 surpassed the total spending by the next eight countries -- nations such as Russia, France, and Japan, and not Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. When interest payments on past military costs and veterans' benefits are figured in, military expenditures are three percent more than what is spent federally on the combination of health, education, nutrition, housing, and the environment.

In a drumbeat of accusations, carefully worded for maximum scare value while remaining vague, Bush claimed that Iraq possessed the "materials to produce" tons of deadly toxins, munitions "capable of' delivering chemical agents, etc., etc. UN inspectors have produced no definite evidence that Iraq has or is developing these sorts of weapons, so the rules have been changed so that Hussein is guilty until proven innocent -- and, as everybody knows, it's usually impossible to prove a negative.

The fear that the U.S. is at risk from 25,000 liters of nonexistent Iraqi anthrax is bogus. What's real is the desire of the U.S. ruling class to install a pliable, sympathetic regime in Iraq, one that will keep the oil flowing and cut Western corporations in on the profits.

What's also real is the certainty that Democratic politicians are incapable of offering any opposition with backbone to Bush's agenda, since they are just as answerable as he to corporate interests, and just as competent at double-speak. Governor Gary Locke of Washington, for example, who was charged with the official response to Bush's address, pointed proudly to his state's record on education. What he left out is that he himself is now angling to overrule voter initiatives to raise teachers' pay and decrease class sizes. And don't look to the Democrats for a stand against the war; the best they can do is urge Bush to act in consultation with Congress and in concert with U.S. allies, which is the same as doing nothing at all.

It's worthwhile for left critics of Bush to educate about the real meaning of his domestic proposals and justifications for war, but we can do more. We can advance an alternative program. How about:

* Create jobs by reducing the work week to 30 hours with no cut in pay. Full employment!

* End U.S. aggression against Iraq! Dismantle the Pentagon and free up funds for education, the restoration of welfare, universal healthcare, childcare, housing, the environment, and the arts.

* Raise taxes on big business and the wealthiest one percent and eliminate all regressive taxes that disproportionately affect those with the lowest incomes.

* No privatization of Medicare or Social Security!

* Restoration of government funding for abortions for poor women. Make complete reproductive rights services accessible to all.

Be sure to bring your friends to an antiwar march on February 15.

For an end to the U.S. war on working people at home and abroad!

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