Slate's Politics: State of the Union Specifics

In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Bush talked about fighting terrorism, making certain tax cuts permanent and easing U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Madeleine Brand talks with Slate political correspondent John Dickerson about the president's tone, and some of the issues he addressed.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick. For the next few moments, we're going to take a look at last night's State of the Union address, including what residents of New Orleans thought of that speech. But this was the headline from the address.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: America is addicted to oil.

BRAND: President Bush's plan for how to temper that addiction has emerged as the take-away theme of his State of the Union speech. And joining us for his analysis is John Dickerson, chief political correspondent for the online magazine, Slate. Hi, John.

Mr. JOHN DICKERSON (Political Correspondent, Slate): Hello.

BRAND: So John, after President Bush said we are a nation addicted to oil, he talked about some of the possible solutions. And let's hear what he had to say.

President BUSH: We will increase our research in better batteries for hybrid and electric cars and in pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen. We will also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn, but from wood chips and stalks or Swiss grass. Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years.

BRAND: And John, he sure makes it sounds like we have a clear path to energy independence.

Mr. DICKERSON: He does. And that's potentially one of its problems, of course. It's to his credit that he mentioned trying to become independent of oil. But the way he sold the program, it sounded like really nobody has to sacrifice much of anything in terms of the way they drive or the way they heat their house but that there's these sort of magical solutions out there. And we've learned from politicians that usually magical solutions aren't what they seem in the end.

BRAND: And you've written that the president has used his State of the Union speeches to lay out big themes, big policy initiatives in the past. And did last night's speech measure up?

Mr. DICKERSON: Not really. It's certainly a pared back speech from last year's speech, which was kind of the kick-off of his reform effort on social security. He certainly talked about big themes in terms of the war on terror, what was going on in Iraq, and that we are at a moment in history where we can't, as a nation, turn back from this war on terror.

So the themes were still big, but there was no major new initiative. And one of the problems potentially with this new oil initiative is that it might turn out to just be kind of a throwaway and that he won't put behind it the kind of energy he did his social security reform plan.

BRAND: And he also took a pretty tough stance toward democrats and political opponents this year. Let's hear what he had to say.

President BUSH: In the coming year, I will continue to reach out and seek your good advice. Yet, there is a difference between responsible criticism that aims for success and defeatism that refuses to acknowledge anything but failure. Hindsight alone is not wisdom, and second-guessing is not a strategy.

BRAND: John, why was the president taking that tack last night?

Mr. DICKERSON: Well, he was basically taking that tack because we're in an election year. There are off-year elections in November, and the president wants to draw bright lines with the opposition. And so the White House had a two-track message here. They were sort of spinning the speech as an attempt to reach out by the president and offer a new civil tone.

But if you really actually read the words, it did just the opposite, which is define anybody who opposes him as being backwards-looking, defeatist, lazy. You wouldn't want to be put in that camp.

BRAND: And John, the president has been going on the offensive recently, defending his NSA wire-tapping plan. What did he say about that last night?

Mr. DICKERSON: Well, he essentially said what he said before, which is this is legal and this is necessary in the war on terror. But he had a huge audience last night. And you can see from the democratic response that they're sort of staying a little bit away from this.

The political tide here seems to be favoring the president if you look at polls. And the White House certainly has looked at them and knows that if he frames this wire-tapping program as a way to catch terrorists that it works for the president. And that's the context in which he put it last night.

BRAND: And on a lighter note, one of the parlor games that journalists engage in every year with these speeches is to count the number of interruptions for applause. And you've written that all those interruptions for applause is what turns these speeches into long and boring affairs.

Last night, there were 58 interruptions for applause, the fewest of President Bush's tenure. Did it help?

Mr. DICKERSON: Well, it was less, but that's still an awful lot. And this is partially our fault because the press still counts the applause and so lawmakers are forced to go through this charade because they know the next day the coverage will mention that number.

And last night we got the traditional applause from the president's supporters at almost everything he said, and we also got this other, sort of, unserious response from the democrats who stood up and applauded when the president said his social security reform plan didn't get passed.

So there may have been fewer applause, but they were still applied in the sort of unserious and silly way.

BRAND: Opinion and analysis from John Dickerson, chief political correspondent for the online magazine, Slate. Thank you, John.

Mr. DICKERSON: Thank you.

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