President Bush speaks in Nashville, Tennessee
Kevin Lamarque  /  Reuters
President Bush speaks at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville, Tenn., on Wednesday as he set out to reinforce themes laid out in his State of the Union address the night before.
msnbc.com news services
updated 2/1/2006 8:16:28 PM ET 2006-02-02T01:16:28

President Bush on Wednesday took his election-year agenda on the road to convince Americans he is addressing their concerns about high gasoline prices and health care costs.

One day after outlining priorities on energy, health care, and economic competitiveness in his State of the Union address, Bush traveled to Nashville, Tenn., to kick-off a campaign to sell his 2006 agenda to the public.

Speaking at the Grand Ole Opry, he tried to reassure Americans worried about the war in Iraq — now nearly three years long — and focus attention on the economy and plans to shore up current growth.

“I understand there’s an anxiety about the time of war,” Bush said. “That’s natural, seems like to me, even though this economy is roaring. It is strong, when you recognize we’ve overcome a lot.”

Bush tried to pre-empt objections from Democrats, who are looking to regain control of the House and Senate in midterm elections this year. The Democrats are looking for advantage in Bush’s weak poll numbers and burgeoning scandals in GOP congressional ranks.

“Our economy is the envy of the world,” the president said. “And yet people are changing jobs a lot and there is competition from India and China, which creates some uncertainty. My worry is that people see that uncertainty and decide to adopt isolated policies, or protectionist policies.”

The president also gave a succession of interviews Wednesday, offering an even more ambitious vision for reducing America’s appetite for Mideast oil than he had on Tuesday night.

“I believe in a relatively quick period of time, within my lifetime, we’ll be able to reduce if not end dependence on Middle Eastern oil by this new technology” of converting corn, wood, grasses and other products into ethanol, he told The Associated Press. In his address Tuesday, Bush set a goal of reducing the nation’s Mideast oil imports by 75 percent by 2025.

Bush, a onetime Texas oilman, offered no criticism of the huge profits of energy giant Exxon, which reported record quarterly profits of more than $10 billion.

On Middle East peace, Bush said the vision of a Palestinian state cannot be realized if a Hamas-led government refuses to renounce its desire to destroy Israel. Bush added that it was too early to tell what path Hamas would choose.

‘We will finish well’
In his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, Bush sought to take charge of the agenda at the start of a year that will see races for most of Congress and 36 governorships.

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Bush has been beset by criticism that his optimistic messages of recent years haven’t squared with the worries many Americans feel over high energy and health care costs, the costly and deadly Iraq war and continuing terrorist threats. He is suffering some of the lowest approval ratings of his presidency.

He acknowledged the anxieties of “a period of consequence,” while still expressing confidence in the future. “Sometimes it can seem that history is turning a wide arc, toward an unknown shore,” he told a joint session of Congress and a national prime-time television audience. “We will finish well.”

He declared that America must break its long dependence on Mideast oil. “America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world,” Bush said.

But hampered by big budget deficits, he offered a modest program that called for ways to more efficiently produce ethanol, not just from corn but from wood-chips or grasses. He set a six-year goal for making this alternative fuel practical and competitive.

Rejecting calls for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, he said, “There is no peace in retreat.” He also slapped at those who complain he took the country to war on the erroneous grounds that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

“Hindsight alone is not wisdom,” Bush said. “And second-guessing is not a strategy.”

He pledged to maintain “a civil tone” in disputes with those in Congress who oppose his policies, like the nation’s involvement in Iraq.

Bush declared “the state of our union is strong and together we will make it stronger.” But Democrats said Bush was living in a fantasyland.

Sizing up the speech
Top democrats found the speech lacking in essential details.

“It just wasn’t credible to hear him talk about making America more secure and honoring our troops or making America energy independent or making health care more affordable without hearing him explain why he’s done just the opposite for the last five years,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Three-fourths of the people who watched the speech said they approve of the proposals made by Bush, according to a CBS News poll Tuesday night of 734 viewers. Those who watched the speech were more likely to be Republican, but only a third who saw the speech thought the president will be able to achieve the goals he mentioned.

Figures on the sidelines gave a look at the nation’s sharp divide over Iraq. Anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a fallen soldier in Iraq, was taken into custody by police in the House gallery just before Bush spoke to a joint session of Congress. She was escorted from the visitors gallery after she caused a disruption, a Capitol Police official said.

First lady Laura Bush, meanwhile, had among the guests in her box the relatives of a Marine killed in Iraq.

Partisan mood
The partisan mood in the packed House chamber was evident as Bush turned, over halfway through his remarks, to Social Security, the subject of his signature initiative from last year’s address that was indefinitely cast aside after even Republicans balked.

Democrats stood in unison to cheer the president’s acknowledgment of congressional inaction on his proposal to add private investment accounts to the government retirement program — an idea nearly universally opposed by Democrats.

Republicans then took their turn, delighting with loud applause in Bush’s finger-wagging rejoinder that “the rising cost of entitlements is a problem that is not going away.”

Bipartisanship erupted briefly as the president went on to make his modest call for the creation of a commission, made up of members from both parties, to examine the impact of the retirement of the baby boomer generation on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

He invited Democrats as well as Republicans to provide “good advice” on the mission in Iraq and praised “honorable people in both parties” who are proposing to strengthen ethical standards amid the influence-peddling scandal surrounding disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Trade and taxes
But even as the president steered away from directly targeting Democrats, he left no doubt he was drawing clear distinctions with the other party, and will continue to do so as the campaign progresses.

He warned against the danger to the nation’s future economic vitality of choosing to “shut ourselves off from trade and opportunity,” a reference to overwhelming Democratic opposition last year to the new Central American Free Trade Agreement.

He termed it irresponsible to allow “a massive tax increase” if previously passed cuts, set to expire, are not permanently extended.

Many of the solutions Bush offered were repackaged versions of ideas he has sounded from the beginning of his presidency.

He announced a competitiveness agenda that is the focus of travel later in the week to Minnesota, New Mexico and Texas. The initiative, a total of $136 billion over 10 years, includes training for 100,000 math and science school instructors and greater public spending on basic science research.

Bush also proposed greater tax benefits for health saving accounts, in which people who purchase high-deductible coverage can contribute money tax-free to 401(k)-like savings plans.

The president was applauded 58 times in a speech that ran slightly more than 50 minutes.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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