June 4, 2008

A true change of course

LAST NOVEMBER, the American people voted for a new direction in Washington. I met thousands of Rhode Islanders who told me we needed change, and in his sixth State of the Union address, President Bush had a real opportunity to show that he was listening. From what we all heard last Tuesday, however, I’m concerned this State of the Union address will end up like so many others from this president: promises that sound encouraging but prove to be empty.

As a new senator attending my first State of the Union, I was struck by the event’s pageantry and historical significance. To be present at the moment when, for the first time in history, a president of the United States uttered the words “Madam Speaker,” was a thrilling experience. I was disappointed that the historic first words of the president’s address were not matched by its substance, which I believe fell short of the mark in three areas where a change of course is sorely needed: the war in Iraq, our critical need for health care reform, and our crippling dependence on foreign oil.

We need a new direction in Iraq. Instead, the president has offered a plan to escalate this conflict by sending 21,500 more troops there. I, like many of my colleagues – Republicans and Democrats alike – believe that would be a terrible mistake. I continue to believe that sending a clear signal that the United States plans to redeploy our troops from Iraq is the way to bring about a true new direction. Soon, the Senate will debate a bipartisan resolution that will put heightened pressure on this administration to abandon its escalation plan, and I look forward to supporting both that measure and stronger ones that I expect will follow it.

The president’s speech outlined a health care plan, and a serious effort at health care reform would bring the promise of lower costs, improved care, and coverage for more Americans. But what we heard from the president totally misses the target – it’s another step in the wrong direction that does nothing to help the nearly 47 million people who lack health insurance, and ignores the comprehensive reform we desperately need. I strongly believe that federal support for better health information technology, including electronic medical records and prescriptions, and a new emphasis on quality is what’s really needed – not an attempt to raise costs for working families without providing better health care.

We need to consume less oil and gasoline and move to alternative and renewable fuels, and I hope the president makes good on his promise of support for tough new reductions in fuel consumption over the next several years. But this is his sixth State of the Union address, and he has yet to do so. Federal funding will be critical to the widespread adoption of alternative fuel sources, and, historically, this president has been very reluctant to commit federal resources to the development and implementation of alternative fuels. I look forward to working with the new Democratic majority in the Senate to achieve energy independence and combat the effects of climate change.

Our nation faces the most serious of challenges. I hope the president will truly change course and begin to work with Congress to meet them.

By: Sheldon Whitehouse