The State of the Union is normally an occasion for boasting about an administration's achievements. But what's a speechwriter to do when there are no achievements?
One answer is to pretend that the bad stuff never happened. The Medicare drug benefit is Mr. Bush's largest domestic initiative to date. It is also a disaster: at enormous cost, the administration has managed to make millions of elderly Americans worse off. So drugs went unmentioned in the State of the Union.
Another answer is to rely on evasive language. In Iraq, Mr. Bush said, we have "changed our approach to reconstruction."
In fact, reconstruction has failed. Almost three years after the war began, oil production is well below prewar levels, Baghdad is getting only an average of 3.2 hours of electricity a day, and more than 60 percent of water and sanitation projects have been canceled.
So now, having squandered billions in Iraqi oil revenue as well as American taxpayer dollars, we have told the Iraqis that from here on in it is their problem. America's would-be Marshall Plan in Iraq, reports The Los Angeles Times, "is drawing to a close this year with much of its promise unmet and no plans to extend its funding." I guess you can call that a change in approach.
There is a common theme underlying the botched reconstruction of Iraq, the botched response to Katrina (which Mr. Bush never mentioned), the botched drug program and the nonexistent energy program.
John DiIulio, the former White House head of faith-based policy, explained it more than three years ago. He told the reporter Ron Suskind how this administration operates: "There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus. ... I heard many, many staff discussions but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions. There were no actual policy white papers on domestic issues."
In other words, this administration is all politics and no policy. It knows how to attain power, but has no idea how to govern. That is why the administration was caught unaware when Katrina hit, and why it was totally unprepared for the predictable problems with its drug plan. It is why Mr. Bush announced an energy plan with no substance behind it. And it is why the state of the union — the thing itself and not the speech — is so grim.