WHEN HE MET with TV anchors over lunch at the White House yesterday, President Bush was feisty, blunt, salty, assertive, and brimming with self-confidence. He was passionate on the topic of national security, saying the first thought on his mind when he wakes up every morning is how to protect America from attack. And he was adamant about aggressively pursuing an agenda in his final three years in office. He said he wouldn't just mark time or "play for a tie."
But when he delivered his State of the Union address last night, a slightly different Bush showed up. His assertion that "we are winning" in Iraq was strong, but the remainder of the speech was mild and more moderate. And after winning serious tax cuts, a Medicare drug benefit, education reform, and a more conservative Supreme Court, his new agenda loomed small in comparison.
His call for innovative ways to ease reliance on Middle East oil made sense. But he didn't emphasize the powerful national security reasons for doing this. The case boils down to one thing: as things now stand, Saudi Arabia and Iran can cause economic havoc here and in Europe any time they want by cutting off or curbing oil exports.
And on Iran, administration officials had suggested that the president would make it clear to the mullahs that the United States and its allies would never allow that country to develop nuclear weapons. The idea was that sharp words by Bush in a State of the Union speech, not just in a press conference or town hall appearance, would have an impact on the Iranians.
The president's words, however, were not as forceful as expected. "The nations of the world must not permit the Iranian regime to gain nuclear weapons," he said. Perhaps his remarks were toned down because his administration is working with Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and France--the multilateral approach--to convince Iran diplomatically not to go nuclear.
Bush tried another tactic on Iran that was quite clever. He addressed the Iranian people directly, saying "our nation hopes one day to be the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran. No doubt millions of Iranians will see the words aimed at them, since more than two dozen satellite TV channels are beamed into Iran from abroad.
Still, as a State of the Union address, Bush's speech was more than adequate. Too much should not be expected of these annual addresses. While they may have important themes--this year's was that the United States must shape events or be at their mercy--they inevitably include a laundry list of new policies and proposals. Bush has plenty of both, enough so that I lost count.
The best presidential speeches usually focus on a single overriding issue while State of the Union addresses are brimming with scads of issues. Bush's best speeches were his address to the country nine days after 9/11, any number of talks on terrorism and Iraq, and his bugle call for a crusade for democracy in his second inaugural address a year ago.
So which Bush is real one, the tough-talking leader at lunch or the less aggressive speaker before a bipartisan congressional crowd in the House chamber in the evening? The answer, I think, is the guy at lunch. The State of the Union tradition allows presidents to defend themselves vigorously but not attack their partisan foes with gusto. But this restriction doesn't apply to any other speech a president may give. The next time Bush speaks, the difference should be obvious.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.