I gave up counting the interruptions for applause last Tuesday night when the number stood at 12, just six minutes in to President Bush's 63-minute State of the Union address. This is the most absurd of American rituals, where platitudinous cliches and high theatre coalesce in a uniquely American way. Bush had little new to say in the 70th State of the Union address, but he delivered his cliches with considerably more panache than he would have been capable of until very recently. Media-wise, he is a quick learner.
What a difference a couple of years makes. Just two years ago, Bush could not even be bothered to look at videos of himself after mock debates, such was his sense of entitlement and belief that he could not go wrong; learning to master the autocue came only in the nick of time for him. For his State of the Union address, however, things had changed. Preparations for the big speech began as early as December, and he had four dress-rehearsals; he had realised the importance of State of the Union addresses from his "axil of evil" address a year ago, which reverberated around the world and was watched by 52 million people in the US.
So this year, as we might expect, we had all the slick phrases conjured up by speechwriters ("the American flag stands for more than our power and interests") - delivered by a president who has now become a pro on the autocue.
The "Iraqathon" on the American news channels described by Barry Humphries continues unabated, meanwhile, and unresolved by Bush's address.
Is the hastiness and indecision over Iraq the reason why Bush's ratings have been so seriously declining in the polls? Opposition to war against Iraq has increased to 43 per cent, up from 38 per cent under a month ago; 48 per cent (some polls say more) believe Bush has not made out the case for war. The sky-high ratings of 84 per cent job approval a year ago have now declined to 60 per cent. But only 43 per cent approve of Bush's handling of the economy. Nobody needs reminding less than Bush, naturally, of how his father won a Gulf war and then lost the US presidency because of the state of the domestic economy: a fate that the second generation of Bushies are determined should not happen to them ("the course of this nation does not depend on the decisions of others" - the only line that actually brought cheers last Tuesday).
My own view is that Bush's domestic ratings have declined precipitously this year largely because the Democrats switched tactics on him: having treated Bush in the midterm elections largely as a bipartisan figure above politics, they found that Bush pulled a fast one on them and went for the Democratic jugular. Senator Tom Daschle, until the elections the Democratic majority leader, now says that Americans are hearing "mixed signals coming from the White House on everything from the economy to Iraq to North Korea. They sense the indecision on what to do about the war on terror. They see the shifts in the direction, the false starts, the backsliding on basic promises . . .
"This is a White House that promises one thing knowing full well it is delivering another . . . If we have proof of nuclear and biological weapons, why don't we show that proof to the world - as President Kennedy did 40 years ago when he sent Adlai Stevenson to the United Nations to show the world US photographs of offensive missiles in Cuba?" (Such a moment will now be attempted by Colin Powell on 5 February.) The new House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, criticised Bush for overseeing the largest number of job losses since the Second World War, the lowest rate of business investment in 50 years, a decline in middle-class incomes for the first time in a decade, and the highest poverty rate in eight years. And, she adds, "the American people have a discomfort level with this war".
The result of all this is that the public have far more doubts about Bush than they did as recently as last summer. They doubt his word on Iraq, on the economy and on future economic plans. In the war against Afghanistan, the nation was of one mind and thoroughly behind Bush; now that life has become more complicated, opinion is far more diffused.
But Bush still sees himself as Churchillian in vision: a leader with the ability, simultaneously, to reconstruct Iraq after a war (see John Loyd, page 26), to pacify North Korea, and to carry on the war against terrorism.
With 21 months to go before the next presidential elections, it is therefore clear that Bush will not now be given the free bipartisan ride into the White House in 2004 that some were anticipating. The Democrats are fed up with his seizing the moral high ground, and are determined to make life more difficult for him. In the meantime, Bush has to produce real, hard budget figures in a few days - and not a speechwriter in the country can help him on that excursion into real government.