The State of the Union, or what ever happened to the purple finger?

We're not in 2005 anymore. But does it matter?

Published January 31, 2006 2:32PM (EST)

Was it really just a year ago?

When George W. Bush last appeared before Congress for a State of the Union address, the indelible image coming out of Iraq was that of the purple finger. Iraqis had just gone to the polls in an election that turned out to be more peaceful than we'd all expected, and it seemed, for just one fleeting moment there, that the president might have been vindicated. "The Iraqi elections have left even the most ardent opponents of the president and his policies stammering through 'yes, but' defenses of themselves," we wrote, and then we stammered through some "yes, buts" ourselves: "There were better ways to do this, the end doesn't justify the means, and the end, whenever it comes, may not be quite as wonderful as it seems right now."

Well, here we are. We're not at the end in Iraq -- that day is still awfully hard to see from here -- and the place where we are isn't quite as wonderful as the one where we were. Eight hundred American soldiers have been killed in Iraq since Bush spoke last year. The Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections has taken some of the luster off the president's plan for spreading democracy through the Middle East. And as Bush prepares to speak tonight, the dominant image of Iraq isn't purple finger but a TV anchorman coming home on a stretcher and a newspaper reporter pleading for her life.

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows that Americans have two "clear demands" for Bush now: Do something to bring down the cost of healthcare, and get U.S. troops out of Iraq. Bush will focus much more on the first than the second in his State of the Union address tonight. But as the Journal notes today, he's not all that likely to be able to deliver on either. On the question of troop withdrawal, Bush has already made it clear that he won't be moving as quickly as the American people would like. On health care, Bush will talk a good game tonight, but it's not at all clear that he'll ever have anything to show for it. Bush spent much of his last State of the Union address trying to sell a plan to privatize Social Security. It went exactly nowhere -- and that was back when half of the American people liked the president and thought he could be trusted. Bush's job approval rating has fallen from 50 percent to 39 percent over the past year; the number of Americans who think he's "honest and straightforward" has fallen from 50 percent to 38 percent.

Bush is in no position to vouch for his own proposals anymore. He isn't powerless -- soon-to-be Justice Samuel Alito can tell you that -- but there's a difference between ramming through an ideological judge whose nomination solidifies your base and working through the hard compromises and vested interests of the healthcare issue. A lot depends on how much effort the White House puts into it: Is this a serious endeavor or a domestic policy distraction from Iraq, from spying, from Jack Abramoff and everything else? And even more may depend on which Democratic Party shows up for work this year. Will it be the one that held firm against the privatization of Social Security last year, or the one that rolled over on the nomination of Alito yesterday? We keep hearing -- we keep saying -- that Bush is weakened. Maybe, just maybe, this would be a good time for the Democrats to be strong.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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George W. Bush Iraq Iraq War Middle East State Of The Union War Room