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Bush's unfinished business

The Baltimore Sun

In his energetic first State of the Union address to Congress seven years ago, George W. Bush promised to bring us together, to govern collaboratively and to deal with a wide array of social and economic problems. Last night, Mr. Bush delivered a modest agenda for the closing months of his presidency with passion, but the details reflect how little he can accomplish and how much he has lost.

Instead of new proposals aimed at saving Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid from an anticipated financial crisis, he urged Congress to come up with its own ideas. For poor inner-city kids, he suggested a new program that would provide $300 million in grants to help them afford the schools of their choice.

On Iraq, Mr. Bush was still the decider, saying that he would seek $70 billion to carry the bloody and inconclusive war into the next administration. It's a mistake. The president continues to ignore the majority of Americans who want a serious plan to bring U.S. soldiers home.

After years of large annual increases in spending on pork, Mr. Bush said he would act today to limit congressional waste with an order that would block back-door projects not specifically approved in law. That effort at reform is urgently needed.

When a resolute Mr. Bush turned to the depressing state of the economy, he pushed for quick action on the proposed $150 billion short-term stimulus package to short-circuit a threatened recession. But other than that, he had no fresh ideas for Congress, relying again on the phantom power of continued tax cuts. Mr. Bush's attempt in his speech to empathize with Americans struggling to pay their bills was little more than recognition of the obvious.

Mr. Bush has said repeatedly that posterity will rescue his reputation as the president who waged a successful war on terrorism, overthrew a despot and returned government to the people. But most Americans take a dim view of his performance. It's not solely Mr. Bush's fault. The 9/11 attacks fundamentally changed the course of his presidency. The subsequent struggles against al-Qaida, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and Islamic extremism became his overriding concern, and most other priorities were neglected.

Mr. Bush's assessment of all that remains to be done offers a sobering lesson as we weigh the qualities of presidential contenders from both parties. America needs a leader with vision but also one who has a clear plan to achieve consensus on the daunting problems that divide us.

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