Leading article: President Bush and the sad state of the Union

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The Independent Online

American presidents have been good, bad and indifferent; occasionally, they have been great. But rarely has a president managed to turn so many advantages into such abject failure as George Bush has done. The past year, the first of his second term, was the year the chickens started coming home to roost.

This may be why the White House has billed the annual State of the Union address tonight as a speech of big-picture optimism about America's role in the world, rather than an exposition of specific policies and achievements. Policies constitute dangerous territory for an unpopular president in a mid-term election year. As for achievements, the less said the better. Both major initiatives Mr Bush announced this time last year - reform of the state pensions system and much-needed simplification of the tax code - soon ran into the sand.

If there are achievements, they are almost exclusively of a negative kind. At home, Mr Bush has turned the record budget surplus he inherited from Bill Clinton into a record deficit. There is not the slightest prospect of the US budget being brought back into balance before he leaves office. It will be left to his successor to figure out how to pay. The administration's tardy and half-hearted response to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans would have shamed any president, but it was nothing short of a disgrace for a president who came to office as a compassionate conservative who pledged to "leave no child behind".

Nor can Mr Bush any longer claim the moral high ground in politics. Having vowed to restore honour and dignity to the White House, he has seen a senior administration official - Lewis Libby - indicted in connection with the Valerie Plame scandal. He has lost one of his chief allies in Congress, the House majority leader, Tom Delay, over allegations of corruption, and may lose more as the Republican lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, concludes his plea bargain with prosecutors. In shades of McCarthy and Nixon, he has had to admit that he bypassed constitutional procedures, ordering the surveillance of US citizens.

Mr Bush's recent failures at home, however, seem almost trivial when placed alongside his record abroad. His ambition to establish friendly alliances through Central and Latin America has been thwarted as pretty much every election has brought a more left-wing government to power. Only Canada has swung - marginally - to the right.

For a man who gloried in a mission to spread freedom and democracy around the world, George Bush has achieved almost the opposite. The arc of territory from the eastern border of Israel to the western border of Pakistan may be marginally more democratic, but it is not free in the American understanding of the word, and it is most decidedly not at peace. In Iraq, the number of US dead passed 1,000 in 2005; killings and kidnappings are a daily occurrence. In Afghanistan, the opium economy is once again entrenched and the Taliban are starting to make a reappearance. Where the countries of the region have gone to the polls - in Iraq, Iran, the Palestinian Authority - they have elected forces hostile to the West in general and the US in particular. So much for the enhanced security the removal of Saddam Hussein was supposed to bring.

Precisely six years ago, President Clinton boasted, not without justification, that the state of the Union was the strongest it had ever been. George Bush can hardly start tonight's speech by admitting that the state of Union is weaker than for decades, but that would be the honest truth. No wonder his speech is expected to deal in optimistic generalities for the future, rather than the grim specifics of today.