THE CENTRAL POINT to make about President Bush's State of the Union speech is this: For the past several weeks, the American people have had growing qualms about going to war against Iraq. This speech will reverse that trend. If President Bush's speech had been a dud, it would have been cataclysmic for the administration. Instead, it was a strong, sober, moral, and determined speech, which will give the president the latitude he needs to pursue the right course.
When I scanned through the text of the speech--which is delivered to journalists just as the president begins--I have to confess I was a little disappointed. I knew this wasn't going to be a legal brief with newly released intelligence data--much of the substance I had heard before in recent speeches by Colin Powell and other administration figures. But when I saw the president deliver the speech, all my disappointments evaporated. In this speech, the president was able to show his resolve, his sober determination, his moral vision.
This was speech as autobiography. President Bush once again revealed his character, and demonstrated why so many Americans, whether they agree with this or that policy proposal, basically trust him and feel he shares their values. Most Americans will not follow the details of this or that line in the address. But they will go about their day on Wednesday knowing that whatever comes in the next few months, they have a good leader at the helm.
The first domestic policy section was predicate for the more important foreign policy section that followed. In that first section, Bush demonstrated that he is not the shallow, rough-riding cowboy that so many Europeans imagine him to be. He is instead a man who understands the need to discipline the growth of government, but who also, when he sees the opportunity to do good, is willing to use government in limited but energetic ways. I thought the decision to launch a major initiative against AIDS in Africa was a noble gesture, exactly the kind of great undertaking that befits the United States. Similarly, the effort to develop new fuel technologies was a brave and important one. In fact, I wish the president had made more of that.
The passionate descriptions of the suffering that Iraqis endure at the hands of Saddam's henchmen followed naturally from that. Here is a man who is alive to the pain of others, who is not going to go to war unaware of the horrible consequences.
The president wisely used the word evil several times in the speech. He is not one to be pushed off a belief, especially when it is true.
If I have a substantive criticism of the speech, it is that it did not spend enough time on the opportunities that lie before us. Americans are driven by hope as much as by fear. Yet the president did not use the word democracy in relation to Iraq (though he did promise the Iraqi people freedom). The president did not lay out the grand possibilities that can be realized if the Arab world follows Latin America, parts of Asia, and central Europe in the great democratic tide. I wish he had followed that line, or at least warned people that if another generation of young Arabs is forced to grow up under systems that offer them no hope, then the waves of terror and hatred will never end.
No, it wasn't quite as moving as the September 20th speech, nor as powerful as the axis of evil speech. Times change. But it was a successful speech, and it lays the groundwork for the informative speech Colin Powell is due to give next week and the war speech the president will deliver after that.
Once again, the president has come through, and rallied the nation.
David Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.