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Russert: Bush sticks to familiar themes

Tim Russert, NBC Washington bureau chief and moderator of Meet the Press, discusses the State of the Union address.
/ Source: NBC News

Following President Bush's third State of the Union address, Tim Russert, NBC Washington bureau chief and moderator of Meet the Press, discusses the speech and its ramifications.

MSNBC:  Tim, your initial reaction to Mr. Bush’s State of the Union address?

Russert:   It is so striking to me that the same issues heard tonight ... Iraq, tax cuts, immigration, the Patriot Act, are exactly the same as I heard in Iowa from the Democrats -- with a totally different perspective and a different philosophy.

MSNBC:  Of course, the president appears as the chief executive of the United States, but in an election year, you cannot separate the politics from that office or the man's aspirations for November of this year.

Russert:  Any president wants to delay, as long as he can, being perceived as a candidate. It is much easier being perceived doing the nation's and people's business, but the fact is that we are in a presidential election year. This president is going to seek re-election. For example, all the Democrats are in New Hampshire. Wednesday, the president is going to go to Ohio, New Mexico and Arizona, three of the 20 swing states that will exist in the year 2004. That is right, but it also is political as well as presidential.

MSNBC:  How well did Mr. Bush walk the line between Commander-in-chief and political candidate in his address?

Russert:  He was both.  It was very clear.  It was a speech that was, in fact, a State of the Union address, but also a blueprint for his re-election campaign.

He drew the philosophical and ideological divide.  It was as if they were eavesdropping on the Iowa caucuses.  Everything the Democrats said about the war in Iraq, about tax cuts, about gay marriage, about the Patriot Act, the president had a much different view Tuesday night.

MSNBC:  This president appears to have learned some very painful lessons from his father in 1992 and his political operation, and is determined not to have those mistakes repeated.

Russert:  Absolutely. He understands that the economy is the centerpiece of any presidential election. He will take every step he needs to take, because he thinks it's good for American working men and women, but also because it helps him politically.

MSNBC:  Mr. Bush said he wants tax cuts to be made permanent. Polls find Americans are pretty evenly split over whether Republicans or Democrats have a better handle on that.  Did Mr. Bush say what he had to say to sway any votes?

Russert:  Well, he secured his base.  They believe deeply in tax cuts and that tax cuts prime the economy and kept us from dipping into recession.  But he infuriated the Democratic base because they believe the “tax cuts for the rich” should be repealed and used for other things.

Those independent voters, they’re still divided on the issue of tax cuts.  I don’t think the president persuaded them last night, nor do I think did the Democratic response.  They are up for grabs.

MSNBC:  The Patriot Act is a key element to the domestic war on terror.  Mr. Bush’s remarks regarding it got mixed reaction.  How big an issue is it going to be as the election draws near?

Russert:  Very big in the Democratic primaries particularly.  When you’re out with every Democratic candidate, all they do is say “Patriot Act” and the room explodes.  Even the candidates running for president, who voted for it are saying we have to repeal certain portions.

I think the president is going to use it as a litmus test as to whether or not you’re really against the war on terrorism.

The Democrats are going to say, “Not so fast Mr. President.  You’re violating people’s civil rights.

MSNBC:  When people are polled, 60% think the Republicans would do a better job with Homeland Security, as compared to 31% who think the Democrats would do a better job.  Will the GOP really try to drive this home and take advantage of this issue?

Russert:  Will they ever!  Here’s the president’s re-election pitch:  “The war in Iraq is the centerpiece of the war on terrorism.  We need the Patriot Act to protect our home shores from another attack.”

The Democrats are going to say, “Nonsense.  It was an elective war.  We didn’t have to do it.  And your Patriot Act goes too far Mr. President.”

MSNBC:  Same-Sex marriages.  The president indicated, in his speech Tuesday night, that, if necessary, he would support a constitutional amendment against it.  What’s the political risk in that?  Any fallout?

Russert:  He said you have to be very careful in your rhetoric in talking about it.  But it was a very direct attempt to talk to the morale values or culture of the country, if you will.

And he chose to say, “court decisions.”  Why?  Because one of the primary decisions about same-sex marriage was in what state?  Massachusetts -- the home state of John Kerry.

This was a very deliberate attempt by the president to say to the “Blue states” -– the Republican states – “I’m with you on this issue,” and challenge the “Red States,” the Democrats, by saying, “If you want to have this campaign about same-sex marriage, bring it on.”

MSNBC:  Did Mr. Bush accomplish what he wanted to in his speech?

Russert:  Everybody’s happy – both Democrats and Republicans.  Both “Red” and “Blue” states believe they benefited Tuesday night.  His speech engages the campaign on the issues they want to engage on.