State of Union Used to Launch New Themes, Programs

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The Atlantic Monthly's James Fallows discusses how President Bush has used his annual State of the Union address in the past. Rather show what the government has done, the president has used the speech to launch new programs, such as the war on terror and his ill-fated Social Security reform.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

As a second term president, George W. Bush has developed an extensive track record for this event. James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, says it's an unusual record of signaling his intentions.

Mr. JAMES FALLOWS (Reporter, Atlantic Monthly): I think what's most interesting about the way the president uses this ceremony is as something more than the ceremony itself. I think we can all recognize over the decades the way this speech has evolved as a sort of celebration of the majesty of the president himself. But as a speech, these have been, for a long time before President Bush, more or less empty gestures. Usually long laundry lists of all the different parts of the government and the demands they have in mind. But starting with his first real State of the Union speech four months after the attacks of September 11th, the president made an important policy statement in that speech and has done so basically with all them since then.

SIEGEL: That was the speech in which President Bush referred to Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil.

SIEGEL: We all jumped upon that phrase when he said it.

Mr. FALLOWS: Indeed, because the President did give subsequent speeches of laying out the architecture or the thought of the doctrine of preemption which led eventually to the war in Iraq.

SIEGEL: And a very unembarrassed use of evil to describe countries with whom we have conflicts.

Mr. FALLOWS: But it did position the president for the rhetoric, leading up to the Iraq war and actually since then, too, about how it was America's moral duty to number one, extirpate evil and number two, to try to bring democracy and other sorts of virtues to the countries that it was dealing with.

SIEGEL: A year later on January 28th, 2003, in his State of the Union Address, President Bush uttered the famous words that lead to the Robert Novak column, the grand jury, the jailing of Judy Miller. Here's what happened.

President BUSH: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

SIEGEL: Presumably from Niger.

Mr. FALLOWS: Indeed, and those are the famous "sixteen words" in his speech which have been the subject of so much subsequent controversy. I think the real point is that they were embedded in a quite sustained argument for war in Iraq.

SIEGEL: Now, those two State of the Union messages about the axis of evil and about the weapons of mass destruction that Iraq was at least pursuing, according to the President, those seemed to be very central to his presidency. But in January of 2004 in his State of the Union, the President, while mentioning such things as well, suddenly made this statement.

President BUSH: The use of performance enhancing drugs like steroids in baseball, football, and other sports is dangerous and it sends the wrong message.

SIEGEL: The President taking on the use of steroids by athletes as an issue in the State of the Union Address.

Mr. FALLOWS: Indeed, and he went on at quite some length about the problem in that speech. This speech at the beginning of the election year of 2004 was in a way an odd man out among the State of the Union Addresses of the President. Because you would have though it would be the most kind of concerted case for why I've been given one term and deserve one more, but it was most like the standard State of the Union speech in being a big grab bag.

SIEGEL: The last State of the Union Address, in 2005, was very, very much about what the President saw as the way he would spend some of the political capital he felt he had acquired in his re-election. He was going to take on social security.

President BUSH: Social Security was a great moral success of the twentieth century. And we must honor its great purposes in this new century.

SIEGEL: For weeks senior officials of the administration went out to flog this idea and it just never got any traction.

Mr. FALLOWS: What he announced at the beginning of his second term quite distinctly did not come to pass and so now we'll see what he announces for the next year of this second term.

SIEGEL: One thing it seems we can be certain of is that he will conclude with what I guess you would call the Regan valediction.

President BUSH: Thank you and may God bless America.

SIEGEL: That's the way every State of the Union Address ends nowadays.

Mr. FALLOWS: It may seem incredible but I can tell the youngsters in the audience that there was an ancient time when presidents did not have to use those words. President Regan began this habit of saying God bless America as a way of saying goodbye, or the end, and once started, it's a tradition nobody dares break away from because it would be the equivalent of burning the flag.

SIEGEL: That's Jim Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, talking to us about the State of the Union Address and how President Bush has used this event. He spoke to us actually from Menlo Park, California. Thank you Jim.

Mr. FALLOWS: My pleasure. Thank you.

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