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Shifting the National Purpose into Neutral

Many who listened to President Bush's State of the Union address this week came away disappointed, feeling the speech had been less than they wanted it to be.

Among them were people who wish the federal government would do far more about the cost and availability of energy, health care and education -- or who want more done to protect the environment.

Also disappointed were those who wanted the president to renew his drive to redesign Social Security and his campaign to rewrite the tax laws.

The president talked about all the above, but committed the government to only limited action and no new directions. On Social Security, his great goal from a year ago, he retreated all the way to calling for another study commission.

So if the speech frustrated liberals and advocates of federal activism, it was hardly the kind of clarion call that conservatives and anti-government activists longed to hear, either.

Instead, the president seemed to have placed his faith in the maintenance of things as they are. The theme for Iraq was to stay the course and complete the mission. In Iran, where a nuclear weapons program appears to be under way, the president's prescription is to prevent it from going further. Pick a hot spot on the globe and the president's big idea was for more of the same.

On the domestic side, the president wanted to extend tax cuts that are expiring, renew the Patriot Act (parts of which are expiring), preserve the heart of his educational program and continue current negotiations to reduce pollution. Again and again, the verbs described a steady state.

In short, the president telegraphed a resolve to throttle back, forgo new challenges and defend what he has done in his first five years.

To be sure, the Republicans in the chamber were on their feet through much of the hour, applauding and cheering. But that was not because the president had lifted their hearts. It was more because he was relieving their fears. The new Bush line is just what most of the professional politicians in his party feel most comfortable with at this point in time.

The new, more temperate mood among the powerful in Washington is all about playing defense: taking care of the ball, making sure the Democrats don't climb too far in this year's midterm elections for Congress. Because whatever the Republicans in Congress say confidently in public, in private they are worried about watching their majorities dwindle in November.

The Democrats would not have to take over in either chamber to make serious trouble. Even a few more Democrats in the Senate might render that chamber as helpless as it was in early 2001 (when each party had 50 seats). And a House with a majority margin of half a dozen seats might be equally ungovernable, especially if its leadership continues to struggle as it has in recent months.

Speaking of House leadership, the desire for a safer course was also evident in the House GOP's vote for a new majority leader this week. Having already said goodbye to their longtime driving wheel, Tom DeLay of Texas, House Republicans also turned thumbs down on his understudy, Roy Blunt of Missouri. Blunt's problem was principally his association with DeLay and the Republican lobby culture DeLay has fashioned over the past dozen years.

The new man, John Boehner of Ohio, represents an earlier generation of ethics reform spirit in House and has been on the outs with DeLay. So while his reform credibility from the early 1990s may have faded, he can at least be called a fresh face. And that should make him more effective in parrying the thrusts of Democrats, prosecutors and the news media.

The House Republicans could have chosen a third option, the fiery conservative John Shadegg of Arizona. Shadegg promised a revival of the takeover spirit from 1994, and he might have been a scourge for the business-as-usual rank and file. But in the end, his colleagues chose the middle way, the safer course. They did not want a new leader -- who might take risks with the voters' current mood -- any more than they wanted a truly bold new agenda from the president.

Right now, Republicans' percentage play is to hold the line and hold the Congress. If they do, watch for next year's State of the Union address to be quite different.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
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