Even George W. Bush’s most ardent supporters conceded that his 2004 State of the Union address was, at best, uninspiring. It wasn’t just the president’s bizarre inclusion of that most pressing of national problems, steroids in professional sports—a topic that received more presidential attention than the environment or energy policy. Nor was it simply his ludicrous insistence that his tax cuts for the wealthy were creating jobs, or his gall in referring yet again to those nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. No, what was most sobering was how out of touch the president was with the problems that America now faces.
In our special report in this issue, we offer a different view of the state of the union. And in a twist on Ronald Reagan’s 1980 line, we pose the question, “Who’s Better Off?” Certainly not David Henning, a sophomore at Hillsboro High School outside Portland, Oregon. Because of budget cuts, federal underfunding, and an anti-tax revolt led by a national conservative group, Oregon—once heralded for its first-rate schools—has been forced to lay off teachers and slash programs. And at schools like Hillsboro High—as David Goodman reports (“Class Dismissed”)—this has forced as many as 51 kids to be crowded into a classroom. Nor is Thomas Morgan, of Philadelphia, better off. For nearly five years, Morgan has received dialysis treatment three days a week at his neighborhood hospital, MCP. But now, as Arthur Allen explains (“Whose Hospital Is It?”), because of a combination of factors—including skyrocketing drug prices, more uninsured patients who can’t pay their bills, and the financial shenanigans of the for-profit corporation that owns it—MCP is scheduled to be shut down. Yet some groups clearly are better off—federal contractors, for example. In a probing report (“Contracts with America”), our Washington correspondent Michael Scherer reveals how the government has contracted out so many of its basic functions that contractors have even taken over the job of overseeing and policing other contractors. Scherer’s article exposes a system that invites the kinds of outrageous abuses—by Halliburton and others—that have occurred in Iraq.
As Bill McKibben points out (“In Search of Common Ground”), the nation has reached a point where so many of the challenges we face—from our failing education and health care systems, to the oursourcing of jobs overseas, to global warming—have begun to seem insurmountable. They are not, of course. We still have the capacity to over- come what McKibben calls our “pervasive hyperindividualism” and to rekindle a sense of the common good. And in a year in which far more seems at stake than simply who should inhabit the White House, nothing could be more crucial than that. —Roger Cohn