WASHINGTON — On Tuesday, as President Bush was asking Congress for the first installment of the hundreds of billions of dollars needed to finance the war in Iraq and its aftermath, the students and teachers at a high school within walking distance of the White House were struggling through their daily routine in a building that has no cafeteria, no gymnasium, no student lockers, not even a fully reliable source of electricity.
A few weeks ago bricks were falling from the facade of the building, which is more than 100 years old.
As we continue the relentless bombing of Baghdad, which the military tells us is the necessary prelude to saving it, it's fair to ask when the rebuilding of essential institutions like the public schools will begin here at home. (Don't hold your breath. The money for that sort of thing has completely evaporated.)
"We actually have rooms where the water comes in when it rains," said Sheila Mills Harris, the principal of the School Without Walls, an academically rigorous high school that routinely finishes first or second in the District of Columbia's rankings.
Laura Bush has visited the school, which has won a series of national honors. But academic honors and a visit by the first lady are, frankly, irrelevant in an era in which social concerns — such as support for public schools and health care, and the need to assist the poor, the hungry and the unemployed — have been forced to the perimeter of public consciousness. Those issues, crucial to our conception of ourselves as a just and humane people, have been devalued and shunted aside by an administration that is committed to an ill-advised, budget-busting war and a devastating parade of tax cuts for the very wealthy.
With our attention riveted on the death and destruction in Iraq, and the continued threat to Americans in the war zone, the other very serious problems facing the U.S. get short shrift. We knew last fall that the proportion of Americans living in poverty had risen, and that income for middle-class households had fallen.
We know that unemployment, especially long-term unemployment, is a big problem. And we've known that the states are facing their worst budget crisis since the Great Depression, a development that has led, among other things, to drastic cuts in education aid that are crushing the budgets of local public school districts.
These issues aren't even being properly discussed. The Bush administration sounds the alarm for war and blows the trumpet for tax cuts, and Congress plunges ahead with the cuts in domestic programs that must inevitably follow. The voices of those who object are effectively silenced by the war propaganda and the fear of seeming unpatriotic.
With attention thus deflected, the administration and its allies in Congress have come up with one proposal after another to weaken programs that were designed to help struggling Americans.
In his budget last month the president offered a plan to make it more difficult for low-income families to obtain government benefits, including tax credits and school lunch assistance. This month, as The Times' Robert Pear reported, the administration proposed changes in the Medicare program that would make it more difficult for elderly people, many of them frail, to appeal the denial of benefits like home health care and skilled nursing care.
The extent to which the most vulnerable Americans are being targeted is appalling. Billions of dollars in cuts have been proposed for food stamp and child nutrition programs, and for health care for the poor.
Collectively, these are the largest proposed cuts in history. Even cuts for veterans' programs are on the table — in the midst of a war!
The administration is actually fighting two wars — one against Iraq and another against the very idea of a humane and responsive government here at home.
At some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, the war against Iraq will end. Americans will then have the opportunity to look around and be stunned by the fix we'll be in. We'll look at the enormous costs of the postwar occupation in Iraq, and at the social and economic dislocation that's occurring here. And we'll look at the disaster that the federal budget has become. We'll be broke, and we'll ask ourselves, again and again, "What have we done?"