When President Bush gave his fifth State of the Union address on January 31, 2006, he sat at 43 percent approval in the Gallup tracking poll, in no small part because of public perception regarding his administration's handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. When President Obama delivered his fifth State of the Union last night, his Gallup approval number was lower a mere 41 percent, doubtless impacted in no small part by the disastrous rollout of ObamaCare and the public's disapproval of the health care overhaul. What's more, some 53 percent in a recent Quinnipiac poll slammed the administration as incompetent and 47 percent expressed the belief that President Obama doesn't pay attention to what's transpiring on his watch. As to more objective metrics, the job situation is worse at this point in Barack Obama's presidency than it was the same point in George W. Bush's with higher unemployment (6.7 percent to Bush's 4.9 percent) and a woefully low labor force participation rate (62.8 percent to Bush's 66 percent).
Yet when you compare the Washington Post's front-page treatments of Mr. Obama's January 28 speech and Mr. Bush's January 31, 2006 one, it becomes all too apparent that the Post is eager to help the former spin his way to resetting the narrative for the midterm election year while the paper was all too happy to pound out a drumbeat about how President Bush was an abject failure, a lame duck roasting in the waters of public disapproval. Here's how Post staffers David Nakamura and David Fahrenthold opened up their January 29 front-pager "Obama: I won't stand still" (emphasis mine):
President Obama sought Tuesday to restore public confidence in his presidency after a dispiriting year, pledging to use his White House authority with new force to advance an agenda that Congress has largely refused to support.
In his fifth prime-time State of the Union address, Obama made clear that instead of trying to fix the mess in Washington, he was now promising to find ways around it.
“America does not stand still,” Obama said, “and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”
In a speech that lasted just over an hour, Obama struck some bipartisan harmony, most notably in an emotional moment near the end when he called on the nation to draw inspiration from Cory Remsburg, an Army Ranger blinded in one eye by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan during his 10th deployment.
Remsburg, who was dressed in his uniform and seated next to first lady Michelle Obama, drew a lengthy standing ovation in the House chamber, and he flashed them a determined thumbs-up.
For most of the speech, however, Obama emphasized that he will no longer be content to wait for Congress’s approval after a bruising 2013 in which it rarely came. He challenged lawmakers to work with him to achieve breakthroughs on large-scale initiatives to overhaul immigration laws and provide more benefits to American workers, including a higher minimum wage and extension of long-term unemployment insurance.
But he also sketched out more than a dozen ways in which he intends to use executive powers to try to boost the economy on his own.
Obama covered topics as wide-ranging as equal pay for women, gun violence and Iran’s nuclear program. He ticked off accomplishments: a rebounding housing market, lower unemployment, manufacturing gains and smaller annual deficits.
Yet he made the case that Congress, and Washington politics more broadly, had become a roadblock to progress.
In other words, yes, the president is suffering a bit of a rough patch, but it's all Congress's fault, more particularly congressional Republicans' fault, and dang it, Obama's ready to fight.
An accompanying analysis piece by Scott Wilson -- headlined "A frustrated president, going it alone" -- continued the party-line spin (emphasis mine):
This wasn’t the presidency Barack Obama had in mind after winning his historic election five years ago. But it is the one he believes he has left.
For the first time since taking office, Obama spoke to Congress on Tuesday evening from a clear position of confrontation, threatening to veto new Iran sanctions, warning against further moves against his health-care law and demanding action on a series of previously proposed economic measures.
The areas he identified for possible cooperation with a divided Congress have shrunk, leaving an agenda filled out by a growing number of modest initiatives that he told lawmakers he intends to carry out alone.
Among them is an executive order raising the minimum wage paid under future federal contracts. In a tone less resigned than dismissive, Obama said he intends to implement more than a dozen others this year, including efforts to improve job-training skills, technology in schools and fuel-
efficiency standards in trucks.
The approach, outlined in a speech that ran more than a hour, reflects the White House’s view that Obama spent too much time last year in conflict with recalcitrant lawmakers, rather than using the unilateral powers in his grasp.
But the go-it-mostly-alone strategy risks further antagonizing Congress and resting part of his legacy on executive actions that do not have the permanence, or breadth, of major legislation.
The more executive-style presidency scores high with the public after years of political deadlock in Washington. It also marks a refiguring of Brand Obama, of the politician who promised to govern more modestly and cooperatively with the opposition after the polarizing years of the George W. Bush administration.
In his fifth State of the Union address, Obama set that aside.
By declaring his intention to ignore Congress when necessary as lawmakers looked on, the president framed an election-year debate about which party is more determined to solve the nation’s enduring economic problems.
By contrast, here's how Dan Balz and Jim VandeHei savaged President Bush in their Feb. 1, 2006 front-pager "Lowered expectations reflect political and fiscal realities" (emphasis mine)
Coming off his most difficult year in office, President Bush used his State of the Union address last night to try to give his embattled administration a new start, speaking expansively about his aspirations for the final years of his presidency -- but offering a scaled-down blueprint for governing.
Bush begins this election year far weaker than he was a year ago. The most telling evidence came on domestic policy. Last year, he used his State of the Union address to launch an ambitious plan to restructure Social Security. This year, with that plan not even coming to a vote in the House or Senate, he called simply for a new commission to examine the impact of baby-boom retirees on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Instead, Bush put his domestic focus on the economy, health care and energy, problems of far more immediate concern to voters than the future of the government's retirement insurance program. If he hoped in 2005 to show he was grappling with issues of the future, last night he sought to reassure Americans that he understands why so many of them are unhappy with the direction of the country.
The president has never lacked for big ambitions, particularly in foreign policy, and he restated many of them last night. But his address lacked the rhetorical lift of some of his best efforts of the past, and the domestic policy agenda, although lengthy, included initiatives that have been around for some time.
In that sense, the speech was a reminder of how much the war in Iraq has drained the administration's energy and creativity, and how much it continues to define the Bush presidency. Before even turning to domestic issues, the president restated his determination to stay the course in Iraq, defended his controversial program of warrantless surveillance at home and issued another warning to Iran over its nuclear program.
Beyond Iraq, Bush's agenda is constrained by political and fiscal realities. Deep partisanship in Washington and the prospect of Democratic gains in the midterm elections lessen the likelihood of cooperation between the two parties on any issue of significance. Fiscally, the deep federal deficit and pressure from Republicans to cut spending restrain the president's ability to spend as significantly on domestic initiatives as he might like.
Down in the polls, Bush sought to frame the coming year as a time of potentially decisive choices on national and economic security, and he provided a vigorous defense of his policies at home and abroad, suggesting that his opponents would lead the country toward isolationism and protectionism. "We will choose to act confidently in pursuing the enemies of freedom, or retreat from our duties in the hope of an easier life," he said. "We will choose to build our prosperity by leading the world economy, or shut ourselves off from trade and opportunity."
He also pointed to two of his recent bright spots: the two newest members of the Supreme Court: Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who were visible in the front rows of the House chamber last night. Alito was sworn in earlier in the day after the Senate voted 58 to 42 -- largely along party lines -- to confirm him.
The humbling of Bush came in many forms last year. Slow progress toward stabilization in Iraq, Palestinian elections in which the radical Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, emerged victorious, and a growing threat from an Iran developing nuclear weapons have shown the limits of administration policies. Bush said he has "a clear plan for victory," but he offered no strong signal of an early return of most U.S. forces in Iraq.
Domestically, beyond the failure on Social Security legislation, House Republicans rejected Bush's immigration plan and Hurricane Katrina dealt a blow to the administration's claims to competence in the face of crisis -- while punching an additional hole in the budget. Republicans forced White House counsel Harriet Miers to withdraw her nomination to the high court. The tax-reform debate fizzled, and the administration walked away from the recommendations of the commission Bush had appointed.
You'll notice Balz and VandeHei noted major foreign policy flops in their piece, whereas the Post's coverage today skipped over President Obama's foreign policy flounderings of 2013, most notably his handling of Syria.
The editorial board, naturally, joins in the fun. "Far from dictating to Congress, Mr. Obama repeatedly acknowledged the necessity of legislative support for his agenda," the board helpfully spun, adding, "Indeed, he invited it."
"[T]he president has laid out several opportunities that don't involve betraying party principle" so Republicans would do well to extend "cooperation across party lines" as "the only sensible course" to move the country forward, they concluded.
Again, by contrast, the Post editorial board savaged Mr. Bush in the February 1, 2006 paper, even on government-expanding programs like the Medicare prescription drug plan, which at the time had hit some snags (emphasis mine):
HE SOUNDED more subdued than triumphant, more realistic than grandiose. But if last night's State of the Union speech displayed a more cautious, less assertive President Bush than in previous years, his caution was not merely a contrast to the swashbuckling style of the past but an outgrowth of it. The president's future horizons are constrained by his past choices, budgetary and political. At home, expensive tax cuts and a Medicare prescription drug entitlement limit his scope for new initiatives. Abroad, the commitment of troops, money and diplomatic capital to Iraq has narrowed the president's options.
On the domestic front, Mr. Bush might have untied his own hands by thinking freshly about the nation's central challenge: the budgetary consequences of the baby boomers' retirement. Although the president invoked this problem, he did not offer new ideas. Having already convened one commission on Social Security and then failed to secure reform, Mr. Bush had the temerity to propose, yes, another commission on entitlements -- as if people are still waiting to be told that they are unsustainable. On health care, which poses an even bigger fiscal challenge than Social Security, Mr. Bush served up a sensible proposal to limit doctors' liability that has so far failed in Congress. He invoked the potential of medical information technology -- again reasonable, again not new. His only semi-fresh idea was to extend the use of tax-protected health savings accounts. These would drain money from the budget, they would be regressive, and they would constrain health spending far less than the administration hopes.
In his most vigorous passage on domestic issues, Mr. Bush asserted that America is "addicted to oil." He attached himself to a lofty goal -- "to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025" -- but his deadline is far off, and it's not clear what he intends in practice. If Mr. Bush believed in markets he would tax the undesirable form of energy, hydrocarbons, and allow other forms to compete. Instead he seems intent on increasing research budgets for alternative fuels.
Mr. Bush was at his most reasonable in calling for more spending on math and science. This is not a bandwagon he invented: A recent report commissioned by Congress advanced similar ideas, and last week a bipartisan group of senators unveiled a bill that would enact the report's agenda. But the president's support is nonetheless welcome. Investing in science is both desirable and a clear government responsibility.
Mr. Bush vowed to stick with his ambitious goals of building democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan and combating tyranny elsewhere in the world. In implicit acknowledgment of the hardships and setbacks those missions have encountered, he argued that "in a time of testing, we cannot find security by abandoning our commitments and retreating within our borders." But the president's rhetoric was considerably more constrained than before. He paired promises of "victory" in Iraq with plans to bring home American troops. He vowed again to defeat radical Islamic terrorists but said little about the threat of rogue regimes such as Iran and North Korea acquiring nuclear weapons. The president who four years ago vowed that "I will not wait on events while dangers gather" said last night that it was up to "the nations of the world" to counter Tehran's nuclear ambitions, and he made no mention of a North Korean atomic arsenal that probably is larger now than in 2002.
Last night's speech was full of such gaps. Mr. Bush said nothing about the rocky launch of the new Medicare prescription drug plan. Tax reform, once a promised centerpiece of a second term, was nowhere to be found. The president made just a glancing reference to the Jack Abramoff corruption scandal, saying he supported efforts "to strengthen the ethical standards of Washington." He defended warrantless eavesdropping, saying that the "terrorist surveillance program . . . remains essential to the security of America" -- without giving any hint of the serious legal questions surrounding his activities. In all, the speech reflected Mr. Bush's changed political circumstances, and it displayed little ambition to tackle some of America's greatest challenges at home or abroad.