George W Bush’s Tuesday night State of the Union address was markedly different from past efforts.

Not least because of a newfound sense of humility. Missing from this year’s speech was the kind of
sharp “good versus evil” rhetoric that had marked past speeches, says Linda Feldmann in the Christian Science Monitor. In his treatment of Iran, whose nuclear program is a
cause of growing alarm, “he did not draw bright lines. Instead, he
highlighted a multilateral approach.”

In fact, Bush “tried another tactic on Iran that was quite clever,” says Fred Barnes in the Weekly Standard. “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.”

Bush’s apparent U-turn on oil policy – “Keeping America
competitive requires affordable energy. And here we
have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often
imported from unstable parts of the world. The best way to break this
addiction is through technology” – had commentators doing a
double take. “Only the most goldfish-minded could not have woken up
with at least
mild surprise this morning to hear George Bush telling Americans they
were ‘addicted to oil’,” said Simon Jeffery on Guardian
newsblog.

But was it such an about-turn after all? Bush has pledged more support for alternative fuel technologies in
previous State of the Union addresses, says Julian Borger in The Guardian, “but US dependence on foreign oil
has continued to rise throughout his tenure.”

And note that Bush’s oil policy is “less dramatic than
it at first appeared,” editorialises London’s Telegraph. “He spoke of replacing more than three quarters of
American oil imports from the Middle East by 2025. Yet
the Gulf supplies less than 20% of the total, the largest
sources being Mexico and Canada. The President seemed intent on
lessening reliance on an unstable part of the world, rather than
weaning the nation from conspicuous energy consumption.”

Meanwhile, it was a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t for Bush, who also copped criticism from OPEC delegates, oil ministers and energy experts for potentially alienating the country’s main oil source with his words.

So was the speech any good?

A “masterful stroke of public relations by the
political virtuosi in the White House,” says Borger. The president took the press by surprise with
“extraordinary plans and seemingly hard figures promising optimistic
solutions to two of the greatest anxieties currently facing America:
high fuel prices and the spectre of being overshadowed economically by
China and India.”

Slate‘s Fred Kaplan says
it should win an award – for “oddest speech of his presidency.” At
times he seemed locked in a time warp, as if
momentous events of the past few weeks had never taken place. “At other
times he seemed adrift on some separate astral plane, describing a
political landscape that simply doesn’t exist in the world the rest of
us inhabit.” In foreign affairs, Bush
needed to deal with two big questions: What’s our next move in Iraq,
and how does Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian elections affect the
prospects for democracy – or, more to the point, Bush’s policy of
spreading democracy – across the Middle East and the world? – but he
didn’t take either issue up with any vigour.

Meanwhile, this year’s pandering nadir came during the brief passage on bioethics,
when George Bush called for legislation banning the creation of
“human-animal hybrids,” says Jacob Weisberg on Slate. “In Washington, there is a lobby for everything
except apparently mermaids and centaurs.”

Peter Fray

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