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More than talk

January 31, 2006

IF HISTORY HAS TAUGHT US anything, President Bush will spend part of his State of the Union address tonight stressing the importance of achieving energy independence from foreign sources of oil, strengthening Social Security, reducing the costs of healthcare and producing a fiscally responsible budget. After all, he's made these pledges four years in a row without much to show for it, so why stop now?

The White House has been downplaying expectations of any major new initiative being unveiled, for which we can be thankful. One of Bush's last big ideas to actually be signed into law, Medicare's prescription drug benefit, has been a disaster in execution since before the presidential ink was even dry. The 10-year, $395-billion price tag has now become a five-year projection, according to the president's proposed 2006 budget, and as Times staff writer Lisa Girion detailed Monday, the low-income seniors for which the benefit was purportedly created have been having a particularly difficult time enrolling in the program since it began Jan. 1. And given the president's inability to move ahead with his Social Security reform, it will be hard to make too much of his health savings accounts initiative.

Bush's most famous State of the Union gambit -- referring to Iraq, Iran and North Korea as the "axis of evil" in 2002 -- arguably hastened, rather than halted, the latter two regimes' hunt for nuclear weapons.

If Bush wants to think big, he need look no further than the federal government's projected $400-billion deficit this year, or the 37% increase in non-defense discretionary spending on his watch. The president has not vetoed a single piece of legislation while in office. The 2005 Transportation Act, rightly labeled a "monstrosity" by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), contained more than 6,000 individual pieces of pork (including Republican Sen. Ted Stevens' infamous "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska), and cost taxpayers $286 billion, a full $36 billion more than Bush initially said he would accept. If the president can't back up his own flimsy veto threats, it's no wonder there isn't enough money left over for projects that are actually necessary.

Bush should also start addressing some of the other perennials he keeps trotting out, including an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws and energy-independence measures that transcend handouts to Prius buyers and an obsession with drilling in a certain state far north. The administration also needs to flesh out how it plans to live up to its "forward strategy of freedom" in the Middle East and Central Asia.

As the president will surely point out, there is a war on, and serious times call for serious governance. He can begin by taking his own words, and his own promises, more seriously.

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