U.S. President George W. Bush (file photo)
U.S. President George W. Bush will deliver the annual State of the Union address before Congress today. Last year's speech was short on specifics in foreign policy, but the president did mention a few ongoing initiatives and some goals. RFE/RL spoke with two longtime political observers about Bush's aims and accomplishments since his last State of the Union address.
Washington, 2 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- When Bush delivers his speech, he will be fulfilling a mandate of the U.S. constitution. It states that a president must "from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union."
The first U.S. president, George Washington, gave the first State of the Union address in 1790 in New York, which at the time was the country's provisional capital.
The third president, Thomas Jefferson, discontinued the practice, saying it seemed too kinglike for a fledgling democracy. Instead, he sent a written version of the speech to Congress, to be read out by a clerk.
In 1913, however, President Woodrow Wilson restored the practice, and every president since then has delivered a State of the Union address.
The address is set to coincide approximately with the start of each annual session of Congress. Robert Spitzer, a professor of political science at the State University of New York at Cortland, says the constitution calls for the speech to outline the country's current status and include any laws the president believes Congress should pass:
"It is an important kickoff time," Spitzer says. "It's a time when the president says to Congress, 'Look, here are the things that I think we as a country should be doing.' And it helps set Congress' agenda for how Congress will be dealing with issues in the months to come. And it is the kind of formal beginning of the new political year."
Spitzer says Bush may have given a preview of today's address in the inaugural speech he delivered two weeks ago: his goal of spreading freedom throughout the world.
But Spitzer says he wonders whether the president plans to apply such aspirations to friendly countries whose governments exert varying degrees of authoritarian rule -- and how much he plans to improve relations with America's allies.
"What about Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, for example? When Bush talks about the importance of spreading freedom, does he include those nations?" Spitzer asks. "In addition, there continues to be the question of how to deal with European nations and other traditional allies. There's a sense that he wants to improve relations with our allies that have been somewhat strained because of the Iraq war, but it's not clear how far he's willing to go."
In fact, on 31 January, Bush spoke by telephone with President Jacques Chirac of France and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany. While the two men expressed optimism about the conduct of the elections in Iraq on 30 January, they gave no indication that they would change their minds about withholding troops from Iraq.
Last year's State of the Union address was short on specifics in how Bush intended to conduct foreign policy. But Bush did mention a few. For example, he spoke of his plan to have an interim government in place in Iraq by the end of June 2004.
In fact, Spitzer says, that deadline was met, despite calls for a postponement.
The Iraqi elections were also held on schedule -- again, despite calls for a delay.
Spitzer says Bush can rightly take some credit for the Iraqi elections, but he adds a significant caveat.
"[The election] was a wonderful expression of democratic feeling by millions of Iraqi citizens," Spitzer says, "and since Bush was pushing these elections and also urging that they not be postponed, I think it vindicated that move. There's one big question, though, that looms over the elections: the practical problems of governing. There are certainly many examples of nations in the world in recent decades that have held elections successfully, but where the end result was not a stable democratic regime."
But other matters Bush mentioned a year ago have n-o-t gone as well, according to Allan Lichtman, a professor of history at American University in Washington. Lichtman points to Bush's promise to press the hunt for Osama bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda leaders, which has yet to bear fruit.
And Lichtman cites the pride Bush exhibited when he enumerated the 34 countries that had committed troops to Iraq. Since then, he notes, that number has shrunk drastically, with countries such as Spain and Ukraine withdrawing their forces.
Lichtman says the 30 January elections have improved the world's view of Iraq, at least for the time being. But he says he does n-o-t expect other countries -- especially traditional allies -- to change their minds about withholding their troops from a stabilization force for Iraq.
"George Bush would like nothing more than to have robust support for his Iraqi and other foreign policies from around the world," Lichtman says. "Iraq remains a very dangerous place. Reprisals have been taken against countries with forces in Iraq, and there doesn't seem to be a great enthusiasm for participation. Indeed, the coalition is dwindling as Iraq remains as dangerous a place as it ever has."
Lichtman says Bush cannot be blamed for the failure so far to capture bin Laden and his top aides. After all, he says, they are elusive by nature and probably are hiding out in areas that are not only geographically impenetrable, but also have populations that are sympathetic to his cause.