President Bush promised to reveal new evidence about Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s intransigence Tuesday night as he sought to strike a delicate balance in his State of the Union address between Saddam’s “utter contempt” for world opinion and the public’s unease over the stagnant economy. At the same time he outlined a sweeping program of tax cuts and domestic initiatives, the president vowed that if Iraq did not disarm, “we will lead a coalition to disarm him” with or without U.N. support.
“THE WORLD has waited 12 years for Iraq to disarm. America will not accept a serious and mounting threat to our country, our friends and our allies,” Bush said in announcing that he would ask the U.N. Security Council to meet Feb. 5 “to consider the facts of Iraq’s ongoing defiance of the world.”
He promised that at that meeting, Secretary of State Colin Powell would present new “information and intelligence about Iraq’s illegal weapons programs, its attempts to hide those weapons from inspectors and its links to terrorist groups.”
Bush journeyed up Capitol Hill to deliver his second constitutionally mandated State of the Union message in an atmosphere dramatically different from that of a year ago, when he commanded the support of nearly 90 percent of the public in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In contrast with that address, in which he laid out a sweeping foreign policy to respond to what he characterized as a worldwide “axis of evil,” the president returned sharply in a 65-minute address Tuesday night to the domestic issues on which he campaigned for president, a strategy aides said was an acknowledgment of public opinion polls that show significant unease over the economy.
“We will work for a prosperity that is broadly shared, and we will answer every danger and every enemy that threatens the American people,” the president said in a vivid illustration of the balance he sought to strike.
Only after outlining a four-point program of domestic goals did Bush turn his attention to foreign affairs. And even then, he denounced Iran and North Korea, the two other points on the “axis of evil,” before taking up the question of Iraq.
The president offered no new observations in briefly recapping his concerns about Iran’s support for terrorism and repression of its people and North Korea’s revival of its nuclear weapons program.
But Bush was vivid and extensive in his denunciation of Iraq as a close ally of terrorists.
“The dictator of Iraq is not disarming,” Bush declared. “To the contrary, he is deceiving.”
New evidence alleged
Bush said that the British government had learned that Saddam recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa and that three Iraqi defectors had revealed that Iraq had several mobile biological weapons labs in the 1990s that could not be accounted for.
“The only possible use he could have for those weapons is to dominate, intimidate or attack,” Bush said.
The president further alleged that intelligence information proved “that thousands of Iraqi security personnel are at work hiding documents and materials from the U.N. inspectors” and accompanying the inspectors “in order to intimidate witnesses.”
He accused Iraq of blocking U.N. surveillance flights and sending Iraqi intelligence officers to pose as the scientists the inspectors asked to interview. When the inspectors do get to interview scientists, they are coached on what to say, Bush alleged.
Bush charged that “intelligence sources indicate that Saddam Hussein has ordered that scientists who cooperate with U.N. inspectors in disarming Iraq will be killed, along with their families.”
And finally, he said, “Evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications and statements by people now in custody reveal that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al-Qaida.”
Saddam “has shown instead his utter contempt for the United Nations and for the opinion of the world,” Bush said. “... If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning.”
Reminding Americans that the terrorist threat was very real at home, Bush also announced the creation of an intelligence center, headed by CIA Director George Tenet, to collect all foreign and domestic terrorism information. The CIA and the FBI have been criticized for missing clues and not adequately sharing information that, had they been pursued, might have led to unraveling the Sept. 11, 2001, plot.
“Our government must have the very best information possible, and we will use it to make sure the right people are in the right places to protect our citizens,” he said.
Strong push for domestic programs
With his support having fallen below 60 percent in the past year as unemployment has remained stubbornly high, Bush chose to devote the entire first half of his address before Congress and a national television audience to laying out four major goals to help answer the public’s concerns.
Those goals are to strengthen the economy by creating more jobs; provide high-quality, affordable health care for all Americans and prescription drugs for senior citizens; promote greater energy independence while improving the environment; and apply “the compassion of America to the deepest problems of America.”
Most striking among the proposals was his call to make income tax reductions set for 2004 and 2006 take effect immediately. He said that as soon as he signed the bill, “this extra money will start showing up in workers’ paychecks.”
Bush also signed on to popular proposals to eliminate the tax on dividend payments, which he characterized as “unfair double taxation” because a company’s profits are already taxed before it pays dividends.
“Lower taxes and greater investment will help this economy expand,” he said. “More jobs mean more taxpayers — and higher revenues to our government.”
Health care reform
Bush devoted an extended passage to Americans’ mounting concerns over the high costs of health care and the consolidation of medical policy in the hands of “bureaucrats and trial lawyers and HMOs.”
“We must put doctors and nurses and patients back in charge of American medicine,” Bush said in calling for a $400 billion expenditure over the next decade to reform Medicare, which he called “the binding commitment of a caring society.”
Bush asked Congress to give senior citizens the option to enter health plans that pay for prescription drugs, which largely are not covered under the current program.
That program was characteristic of a bold slate of domestic programs outlined by the president, who promised to “work for a prosperity that is broadly shared and ... answer every danger and every enemy that threatens the American people.”
Major anti-aids initiative
Bush included among his initiatives a major worldwide campaign to eradicate AIDS in Latin America and Africa, an extension of the “compassionate conservative” philosophy on which he campaigned for president three years ago.
Bush proposed a $15 billion Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which he touted as bigger than “all current international efforts to help the people of Africa.” Two-thirds of that money, which would be spent over five years, would be new appropriations.
“AIDS can be prevented,” he insisted.
Other components of the president’s domestic initiative would include spending $1.2 billion in research funding on hydrogen-powered automobiles and $450 million to help bring adult mentors to more than a million disadvantaged junior high students and children of prisoners.
One new proposal is sure to spark controversy. In proposing to spend $600 million to help an additional 300,000 Americans receive drug treatment over the next three years, the president urged that people be allowed to take advantage of programs run by religious-based organizations.
Drug treatment advocates have criticized such proposals because some of those programs do not employ medically based treatments, and some of their staffs are not licensed to treat drug addiction.
Democrats spurn arguments
Those arguments did not mollify Democrats who have become increasingly aggressive in their opposition to Bush’s campaign to build support for war with Iraq. They continued a drumbeat of criticism Tuesday, emphasizing areas of concern exposed in polls that showed Bush’s popularity sagging.
“The president is right that our country faces great challenges — regretfully, regular Americans won’t find solutions to them in the proposals laid out tonight,” Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., a presidential candidate, said in a statement.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said he would seek votes Wednesday in the House and the Senate on a resolution that would require Bush to present “convincing evidence of an imminent threat” from Iraq. He said Bush “did not make a persuasive case that the threat is imminent and that war is the only alternative.”
The official Democratic response came from Washington Gov. Gary Locke, who argued that Bush’s proposals would do “too little to stimulate the economy now and ... too much to weaken our economic future.”
“It will create huge, permanent deficits that will raise interest rates, stifle growth, hinder home ownership and cut off the avenues of opportunity that have let so many work themselves up from poverty,” said Locke, who is chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.
Locke urged more federal support for struggling state and local governments, arguing that no economic recovery could occur without help from Washington, a proposal that was among Bush’s economic agenda.
As is traditional, a guest box in the galleries overlooking the House chamber was hosted by first lady Laura Bush and filled with “living testimonials” to the president’s message.
The guests Tuesday night included a half-dozen people who would benefit from Bush’s tax-cut proposal, two doctors slammed by high malpractice insurance costs, several people who work for or run aid organizations, and a sister and sister-in-law of the president. One gallery seat was left empty to symbolize “the empty place many Americans will always have” because of the Sept. 11 attacks.
And as is also tradition, one member of the Cabinet was absent, in case a catastrophe were to wipe out the rest of the government. This year, that duty fell to Attorney General John Ashcroft.