President Bush argued in his State of the Union address Tuesday night that while he had made great strides in defeating terrorism and revitalizing the economy, his work was not done and he should be returned to office to finish the job.
“America this evening is a nation called to great responsibilities,” the president said. “And we are rising to meet them. ... We have not come all this way — through tragedy and trial and war — only to falter and leave our work unfinished."
The address, delivered in the chamber of the House of Representatives on the third anniversary of Bush’s taking office, came the day after Democrats formally kicked off their presidential nomination selection process in the Iowa caucuses, won by Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. Aides said they hoped the speech would quickly redirect attention to the White House.
A president at war
At the same time, the speech was designed to cast Bush as above politics, grappling with the nation’s problems while his Democratic rivals trade charges on the campaign trail.
Bush opened his 54-minute address, which was interrupted for applause 54 times, with remarks on national security before moving into domestic priorities, contrary to past practice.
Bush acknowledged that while more than two years has passed since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, “it is tempting to believe that the danger is behind us. [But] that hope is understandable, comforting and false.”
And while he sought to avoid overly controversial issues in his determination to remain above the political fray, he did offer a spirited defense of the USA Patriot Act, which was enacted after the Sept. 11 attacks but has since been harshly opposed as invasive of Americans’ privacy. Some significant components have not survived court challenges.
“Inside the United States, where the war began, we must continue to give homeland security and law enforcement personnel every tool they need to defend us,” the president said, noting that key provisions of the Patriot Act were set to expire next year.
“The terrorist threat will not expire on that schedule,” he told lawmakers. “Our law enforcement needs this vital legislation to protect our citizens. You need to renew the Patriot Act."
The president also defended his decision to go to war in Iraq.
“The once all-powerful ruler of Iraq was found in a hole and now sits in a prison cell,” he said, referring to former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who was captured last month.
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“Thousands of very skilled and determined military personnel are on a manhunt, going after the remaining killers who hide in cities and caves, and, one by one, we will bring the terrorists to justice,” he said.
“As part of the offensive against terror, we are also confronting the regimes that harbor and support terrorists and could supply them with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. The United States and our allies are determined: We refuse to live in the shadow of this ultimate danger.”
Applause for Iraqi leader
Bush introduced Adnan Pachachi, president of the Iraqi Governing Council, in the gallery to a long round of applause.
“Sir, America stands with you and the Iraqi people as you build a free and peaceful nation,” the president said.
But the job will not be easy or over soon, he acknowledged.
“As democracy takes hold in Iraq, the enemies of freedom will do all in their power to spread violence and fear. They are trying to shake the will of our country and our friends, but the United States of America will never be intimidated by thugs and assassins,” Bush declared.
“The killers will fail, and the Iraqi people will live in freedom,” he promised.
Bush steered clear, however, of explicit predictions that U.S. inspectors would find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
In last year’s address, Bush denounced Saddam as a “dictator who is assembling the world’s most dangerous weapons” and devoted a large section of his speech to cataloguing them. But to date, no such weapons have been found in Iraq.
In an interview Tuesday with NBC News, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card sidestepped a question about whether Bush owed the American public an explanation.
“We have clear evidence. We were pursuing them,” Card told NBC’s David Gregory. “He had not disclosed all of his activities to the United Nations. And we we are still seeking more information.”
Deal with Libya
Instead, Bush trumpeted the agreement his administration reached in December with the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, who voluntarily pledged to dismantle his country’s weapons programs.
“Nine months of intense negotiations involving the United States and Great Britain succeeded with Libya, while 12 years of diplomacy with Iraq did not,” Bush said. “And one reason is clear: For diplomacy to be effective, words must be credible. And no one can now doubt the word of America.”
Accordingly, he argued, the United States should remain in charge of the transition in Iraq.
“From the beginning, America has sought international support for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we have gained much support,” he said. “There is a difference, however, between leading a coalition of many nations and submitting to the objections of a few. America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our people.”
In the official Democratic response to Bush’s speech, delivered jointly by House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Pelosi slammed the president for pursuing a “go-it-alone foreign policy that leaves us isolated abroad and that steals the resources we need for education and health care here at home.”
“As a nation, we must show our greatness, not just our strength,” she added.
Domestic priorities stressed
On the other longstanding foreign policy challenge confronting his and previous administrations, Bush talked of the need for peace in Israel and the occupied territories, but he offered few specifics.
Bush said the Voice of America and other U.S. broadcast agencies were expanding their Arabic- and Persian-language programming and were planning a new television service to “begin providing reliable news and information across the region.” But he spoke otherwise only in very general terms of the need for peace in “a troubled part of the world.”
“We have no desire to dominate, no ambitions of empire,” he added. “Our aim is a democratic peace — a peace founded upon the dignity and rights of every man and woman. America acts in this cause with friends and allies at our side, yet we understand our special calling: This great republic will lead the cause of freedom.”
He then turned quickly to domestic priorities, with a special emphasis on the economy, which has rebounded strongly since he declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq in May.
Bush argued that his series of tax cuts had turned the economy around and that he was now turning his attention to job creation. “This economy is strong and growing stronger,” he proclaimed.”
But he called on Congress to do more “by helping more Americans gain the skills to find good jobs in our new economy.”
Democrats said they were determined to make sure that the president did not get too much credit; he has cut vocational education and an array of job-training programs in recent years, they said.
Education reform defended
Part of Bush’s argument was a defense of the No Child Left Behind Act, which imposed national testing standards on local schools as a condition for federal aid. Many local school districts objected to the standards, saying they were inappropriate for local conditions, and some took steps to pull out of the program.
But Bush said that thanks to the program, “we are making progress toward excellence for every child.” He insisted that “testing is the only way to identify and help students who are falling behind.”
Bush then unveiled proposals for a new program called Jobs for the 21st Century, which he said would will provide help to middle school and high school students who lag in reading and mathematics skills, expand Advanced Placement programs in low-income schools, and encourage math and science professionals from the private sector to teach part-time.
The president called for an expansion of the Pell Grants program for students who take demanding courses in high school. He also urged more support for community colleges, “so they can train workers for the industries that are creating the most new jobs.”
Call for more tax cuts
Bush insisted that lower taxes were the key to job training. “We must continue to pursue an aggressive, pro-growth economic agenda,” he said, adding that “Congress has some unfinished business on the issue of taxes,” noting that tax cuts it passed in the last two years were also set to expire.
“Unless you act, the unfair tax on marriage will go back up,” he said. “Unless you act, millions of families will be charged $300 more in federal taxes for every child. Unless you act, small businesses will pay higher taxes. Unless you act, the death tax will eventually come back to life. Unless you act, Americans face a tax increase.
“What the Congress has given, the Congress should not take away: For the sake of job growth, the tax cuts you passed should be permanent.”
Daschle, whose response was devoted to the domestic programs in Bush’s speech, dismissed the call as political pandering to the wealthy.
“Rather than a society that restricts its rewards to a privileged few, we need an ‘opportunity society’ that allows all Americans to succeed,” Daschle said. “... America can’t afford to keep rewarding the accumulation of wealth over the dignity of work.”
Health care initiatives
Bush had one other major new initiative to tout, proposing steps to rein in the rising costs of health care. They included:
- Tax incentives to make high-deductible, low-premium policies more attractive and to bring more people into the insurance system.
- Health savings accounts, which would allow workers to place money into accounts tax-free and withdraw it with no tax penalty for medical expenses.
- Caps on medical-malpractice awards.
- A new rule to allow businesses to pool their resources to cover workers.
- More aggressive use of medical technology to reduce the number of medical mistakes, which drive up health care costs.
But he rejected proposals to privatize health care, calling a government-run health care system “the wrong prescription.”
“By keeping costs under control, expanding access and helping more Americans afford coverage, we will preserve the system of private medicine that makes America's health care the best in the world,” Bush insisted.
Bush did not mention his plan to establish a long-term presence on the moon — a proposal opposed by 62 percent of respondents in a Washington Post-ABC News poll published Tuesday.
Bush’s overall approval rating, which stood at 58 percent in the ABC-Post poll, is higher than for any other president at this point in his term since Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956. Bush’s poll numbers are buoyed by his leadership on the fight against terrorism — 66 percent approval — but dragged down by concerns over domestic issues, such as health care, immigration and the economy.
Card sounded confident Tuesday that the president would be re-elected comfortably.
“I don’t think he’s vulnerable,” Card said. “I believe the president is well positioned to earn again the opportunity to lead this great country.”
Blanket of security
Security was extraordinary around the Capitol, NBC’s Mike Viqueira reported. The speech was declared a “national special security event,” putting the Secret Service in charge of all preparations.
Surveillance cameras were activated across the city to watch for suspicious activities.
Sens. Harry Reid of Nevada, the number-two Senate Democrat, and Trent Lott, R-Miss., were asked to go to undisclosed locations in case the Capitol was hit by a catastrophic event. Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., and Christopher Cox, R-Calif., were also absent, for the same reason.
By tradition, a member of the president’s Cabinet also misses the speech as a precaution against the entire administration’s being wiped out. Previous administrations have identified the missing officer, but the White House this year would not release the name, again for security reasons.
It turned out to be Commerce Secretary Don Evans.
NBC’s David Gregory, Mike Viqueira and Pete Williams in Washington contributed to this report.