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Let’s Roll!

Great applause line: Our new national slogan, said W. on Tuesday night, is “Let’s roll!”

It’s most certainly the administration’s slogan — its mantra and mission, as President Bush made abundantly apparent in his State of the Union address. He’s gonna roll the war right on, to the Philippines and the coast of Somalia, with the blessing or at least tacit consent of their governments. He told three more-antagonistic states — Iran, North Korea, Iraq — that we might just roll the war to their doorsteps. And he rolled right past the domestic-policy portion of his speech, giving all home-front concerns except for security such perfunctory attention that his commitment to and absorption in the war was screamingly clear.

The man has found his meaning. You could not, before September 11, squeeze the words “George W. Bush” and “transcendent purpose” into the same paragraph. At that point, the most you could say for this distractible doof was that he wanted to avenge his father’s defeat. Now, he has his raison d’être. The nation genuinely needs a defense against terrorist attacks, and his administration will provide it. The nation needs to mount an ideological offensive against the champions of a closed society, and his administration will lead that charge (except in Saudi Arabia and other backwater allies; the world’s a messy place, you know).

In preparing this address, Bush’s speechwriters, we were told, made a careful study of Franklin Roosevelt’s 1942 State of the Union. In that speech, delivered just one month after Pearl Harbor, FDR pledged his total commitment, and that of the nation, to defeating the Axis powers. Now, I’m a firm believer that no pol (or his writers) can ever go wrong by studying Franklin Roosevelt’s speeches. In this case, however, I think they studied the wrong speech.

For the war that Roosevelt was waging was a bloody contest of nation-states, with definable battles, fronts and maneuvers that compelled everyone’s attention on every day of the war. Bush has now cast himself as the leader of a war effort whose fronts and maneuvers may not be visible, that ebbs and flows in public consciousness, that Americans now tell pollsters is the nation’s second most serious challenge, with the recession ranking first.

It’s completely understandable that Bush sees himself as a “hot war” president, as Lincoln and Roosevelt were. September 11 was a cataclysmic attack on America, and the nation has been engaged in a fairly conventional, if very high-tech, war in Afghanistan. But the conflict Bush laid out to Congress and the nation this week wasn’t conventional or hot; it was far closer to a second coming of the Cold War. We have enemies everywhere (“tens of thousands” of terrorists, Bush said more than once), but that does not mean that battles or invasions loom, and as he himself said, this struggle will go on past the end of his presidency. Which is to say, a better choice for Bush’s speechwriters than the 1942-model FDR would have been Harry Truman’s speeches to Congress calling for aid to Greece and Turkey in their struggles against communism, and the formation of NATO — that is, the promulgation of the Cold War.

Being a cold-war president, however, plunges Bush back into the realm of normal politics, which has never really absorbed him and at which he’s never particularly excelled. A cold-war president leads a nation that knows the conflict is omnipresent and important, but that has other concerns — jobs, health care, the environment, taxes — that at any given moment may eclipse the war. The pol or party that’s seen as tougher on the enemy always has an edge — Republicans clobbered the Democrats as soft on commies for nearly half a century — but that often isn’t advantage enough.

But the Bush who delivered the State of the Union was something new in the political firmament: a hot-war president for a cold-war country. Politically, the White House is absolutely correct that Americans expect Bush to focus on homeland security. Whether he can get away with giving such scant attention to the recession, however, is something else again.

It wasn’t that Bush avoided the topic of jobs in his address; it’s just that he mentioned them without saying anything about them. He introduced the subject and veered immediately to a discussion of schools and better teachers and his alliance with Stately, Plump Ted Kennedy. He offered a cursory defense of the tax cut and “energy independence.” (Hot-war presidents don’t stoop to mention the gazillion jobs that, according to their press releases, will be created by Arctic drilling.) He talked about pension protections. (Damn that Kenny Lay: Gives me all that money, screws up big-time, and now I gotta build some kind of goddamn welfare state.) And that was it for the economic-security platform. Clearly, by both inclination (his own) and calculation (Karl Rove’s), Bush believes he should be doing war stuff.

It’s hard to argue with success, of course. Bush’s approval rating was in the mid-80s before the speech, all of that from his stewardship of the war. In an odd sense, he has been immune from judgment on basic domestic concerns. The polling shows that about half the public blames the war for the budget deficit and the recession, though the deficit is almost entirely the result of W.’s feed-the-rich tax cut. Which makes Bush the only president in modern American history who has not been held responsible for the condition of the economy — at least, not yet.

Politically, this hot-war presidency is taking a leap of faith: that the American people were so seared and scared by September 11 that Bush can focus on homeland security and an anti-terrorist global campaign — however low-profile those endeavors may be — and, with a bit of lip service to the economy, build a majority coalition in the process. That’s certainly Karl Rove’s conclusion, and absent a deeper recession or smarter Democrats, he may, in the short run, be right.


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