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A comfort speech

IT IS NOT AN UNUSUAL experience to listen to President Bush deliver a major speech and find yourself, regardless of your politics, nodding along in vigorous agreement. Tuesday night was no exception. The president hit the right notes, some of them even surprising, throughout his 52-minute State of the Union address. It was bracing to hear any resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., let alone an oilman from Texas, state bluntly that “America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.”

Bush, more than we’ve come to expect, was willing to single out by name friendly countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia as regimes in need of more political reform. He faced down members of Congress, largely from his own party, who peddle “claims that immigrants are somehow bad for the economy,” and he again spoke persuasively about the opportunity-building virtues of free global trade.

In a familiar fixture of major Bush speeches, he reserved some of his greatest oratorical passion for honoring the struggles of civil rights leaders such as Coretta Scott King and decrying the vestiges of unequal opportunity that still plague the country. He was right, for the fifth year in a row, to point out that the United States needs affordable healthcare, that Social Security needs fundamental reform, that Congress should demonstrate fiscal restraint and that the nation’s chaotic immigration laws are in sore need of an overhaul.

Above all, Bush was correct to point out that democracy and freedom worldwide are in America’s vital strategic interest and that “the only alternative to American leadership is a dramatically more dangerous and anxious world.”

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But the president often musters his laudable principles to avoid specifics or deflect unpleasant realities. On Iraq, he said, “I am confident in our plan for victory, I am confident in the will of the Iraqi people, I am confident in the skill and spirit of our military.” As if to underscore the theme that confidence is all it takes to prevail, he added, “We are in this fight to win, and we are winning.”

Confidence is an asset, but Bush needs to be more forthright about his setbacks. On the domestic front, the president never seems to be able to explain why so much of his agenda is stalled even though his party controls both houses of Congress. In a humiliating retreat, last year’s headliner, Social Security reform, has now been consigned (again) to that dustbin of history -- a blue-ribbon bipartisan commission.

Bush once again touted the need for immigration reform -- but without deigning to go into any details about how to handle the millions of immigrants already here illegally. Why start wading into policy debates in your fifth State of the Union? And it was amusing to hear him pin so much hope on ethanol to deliver us from dependence on foreign oil.

By far the most cynical part of the address was the president’s defense of the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program, now rechristened, in Orwellian fashion, the “terrorist surveillance program.” Bush’s legal justification was misleading, and his talk about how such a program could have prevented the 9/11 attacks suggests the White House is considering turning lemons into lemonade by using the issue in this year’s midterm elections. The pitch might go something like this: If you think Al Qaeda members have a right to privacy, vote Democratic.

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