President Bush spent half of his State of the Union speech on a domestic agenda that was more important for what wasn't said. The president acknowledged the key problem (and his greatest vulnerability as expressed in public opinion polls): Too few Americans have jobs and health insurance. Yet his solutions were timid and conveniently ignored the fact that a growing budget deficit limits the government's ability to act.
On the $500-billion deficit, the president was in denial. It will be cut in half over the next five years, he said, through the elimination of "wasteful spending." Whom was the president lecturing? He hasn't vetoed a spending bill yet, which has angered fiscal conservatives in his own party. The Heritage Foundation, normally a Bush ally, noted that "federal spending - especially discretionary spending - has soared over the past two years, and new programs proposed by the president will make it difficult to check this growth."
Bush warned Congress not to tinker with one of the most expensive new initiatives - the $400-billion Medicare prescription drug benefit - although it is still not clear how the government can afford it and keep Medicare afloat. Trips to the moon and Mars got no mention, however - another expensive Bush proposal that, apparently, hasn't polled as well.
As for the unprecedented tax cuts, make those permanent, Bush said. On that, the president could face an uphill battle because even some Republicans on Capitol Hill are beginning to admit that deficit relief is needed more than tax relief. While the initial cuts did stimulate the economy, later reductions aimed at wealthy Americans had more of an impact on the deficit than on the economy.
The president noted correctly that the economy is growing, but it has been, essentially, a jobless recovery. His main proposal to stimulate job growth is inadequate. He would spend more on job training at community colleges. No one would disagree that colleges could use a financial boost, but job training should not be confused for job creation. Since Bush became president, 2.4-million jobs have been lost, and he needs a better game plan than tax cuts and training to put Americans back to work.
The president's proposals for helping the 43-million uninsured come up short, as well. There is nothing wrong with establishing tax-free savings plans for medical expenditures, although they tend to help those with the least financial need. A limited tax credit to low-income families for insurance could be helpful if policies were affordable and met health needs. But neither of those offerings is likely to make much of a difference in the current marketplace, where insurance costs are rising and coverage is shrinking.
The president showed his disdain for government involvement in health care, calling such a system "the wrong prescription." That could explain why Bush is proposing to spend $500-million more this year to reward HMOs that offer alternative plans to Medicare recipients. Traditional Medicare has been popular and relatively efficient, so some of that money should be going to doctors and hospitals who care for the vast majority of recipients.
President Bush's speech might provide sound bites for his re-election campaign. It didn't provide realistic solutions for the nation's most pressing problems.