Two themes ran through President Bush's final State of the Union address Monday night, as he made the case for his continued relevance: Trust the American people, he said - again and again - and empower them to run their own lives. Trust the people with their money, and the economy will come around. Trust them to demand better schools, and schools will improve. Trust scientists to think big about global warming, and they will hit on solutions. All of that is fine, and yet for all of Bush's trust in the American people, he also made clear that he lacks essential confidence in their government - his government.
Bush had his moments. He struck back against Congress' practice of funding projects with earmarks that are not publicly debated or disclosed. He called for strengthening No Child Left Behind. He proposed purchasing crops directly from farmers in the developing world to combat famine. Those are useful recommendations, and Congress should heed them.
But Americans have many troubles, and they are asking their government for help. Health care has become unaffordable for millions. Bush hears those woes but rejects sensible solutions for ideological reasons - favoring "consumer choice, not government control." Illegal immigration has inflamed passions nationwide and stirred irrationality in the president's own party. To his credit, he tried to win a reform bill last year, but he failed, testament in part to his ebbing influence. On Monday, he sounded the call again, but with no details or hope of victory.
In Iraq, he trusts his generals but ignores the limits of their power. Yes, brave Americans have helped stabilize the military situation in that nation, but political reconciliation, not indefinite occupation, is what will bring lasting peace to Iraq. Bush offered no hint of how his government, in its remaining year, can bring that about. That he mentioned global warming at all suggests an evolution in his thinking about a phenomenon whose existence he once questioned. Yet he's still relying on future technology and resisting market mechanisms to encourage that technology.
Government is not the passive instrument of bureaucrats. It is the active agent of a democratic people. When the people genuinely need its help, the government should act, not merely encourage. In this, Bush has failed to give his nation what it needs. His trust in America's people is undoubtedly genuine, but his unwillingness to act on their behalf is responsible for our fading trust in him.
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