President Bush, wrapping the themes of his re-election campaign in his State of the Union address, asserted Tuesday night that America is strengthening its economy and successfully combatting terrorism. "We have not come all this way — through tragedy and trial and war — only to falter and leave our work unfinished," he said.
In a stay-the-course speech to a joint session of Congress, Bush said the nation faced important challenges and choices and adamantly defended his actions as president.
He said it was tempting — but wrong — to think the danger of terrorist attacks had passed even though it has been more than two years since America was attacked.
"We have come through recession and terrorist attack and corporate scandals and the uncertainties of war," the president told lawmakers at the opening of a campaign year. "And because you acted to stimulate our economy with tax relief, this economy is strong and growing stronger."
Democrats were quick to take issue, noting that 2.3 million jobs have been lost under Bush, that deficits are soaring and casualties are climbing in Iraq. Democrats sat silently through most of Bush's 54-minute speech while Republicans applauded repeatedly.
Bush's speech was designed to cast him as the commander in chief, grappling with the nation's problems and above politics while Democratic rivals for his office race around the campaign trail trading charges.
Bush was combative at times, challenging opponents of the Iraq war — particularly those who complained he lacked international backing.
"America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our people," he said.
With a $500 billion budget deficit limiting his options, Bush offered a handful of modest initiatives: a $23 million pilot plan to encourage student drug testing in public schools and a $300 million training and placement program to help newly released prisoners find jobs.
He urged major league sports leagues and athletes to end the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Their use by even a minority of elite athletes sets a dangerous example for the millions of young Americans, encouraging them to take dangerous risks with their health and safety, Bush said. He also proposed doubling federal spending on programs to promote sexual abstinence among teenagers.
Touching on a politically sensitive issue, he said he would support a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages if the courts struck down a law saying marriage should be between a man and woman.
The speech fell one day after the one-two finish of Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards in the Iowa caucuses threw the Democrats' race into a wide-open contest going into next week's New Hampshire primary.
"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."
"Our greatest responsibility is the active defense of the American people," he said. "Twenty-eight months have passed since Sept. 11, 2001 — over two years without an attack on American soil — and it is tempting to believe that the danger is behind us. That hope is understandable, comforting and false."
Campaigning in New Hampshire, Democratic candidates struck back.
"He's not making America safer," said Kerry." "Hardworking Americans will see through this president's effort to wrap his radical agenda with a compassionate ribbon," said former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the third-place finisher in Iowa. "It's all smoke and mirrors designed to hide the stark fact that he has no real plan for our future," said retired Gen. Wesley Clark.
Bush faced an electorate closely divided over the nation's direction. Americans are evenly split on his handling of domestic issues such as education, health care and energy, and just over half approve of his handling of the economy, polls suggest. His strong suit remains foreign policy, especially his handling of terrorism. Bush's job approval among voters in an AP-Ipsos poll early this month was 56 percent, a relatively strong position at this stage of a re-election campaign.
Bush said his administration was confronting nations that harbor and support terrorists and can supply them with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. "Because of American leadership and resolve, the world is changing for the better," Bush said.
He said the United States has captured or killed two-thirds of the leadership of the al-Qaida network — although Osama bin Laden remains at large. He called on Congress to renew key portions of the Patriot Act that the administration says has given law enforcement officials the tools they need to combat terrorists.
The president defended his decisions to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Of the top 55 officials of Saddam Hussein's regime, 45 have been captured or killed, Bush said.
Of Saddam, Bush said, "The once all-powerful ruler of Iraq was found in a hole and now sits in a prison cell."
Bush acknowledged that some Americans opposed his decision to go to war in Iraq. But he said, "Had we failed to act, the dictator's weapons of mass destruction programs would continue to this day." His words served as a reminder that the United States has not been able to find any banned weapons in Iraq, which was Bush's justification for going to war.
With more than 500 American troops killed in Iraq, Bush said, "The work of building a new Iraq is hard, and it is right."
On the domestic front, Bush said America's economy was being transformed by technology that makes workers more productive but requires new skills. He called for new job-training grants totaling $250 million channeled through community colleges.
Bush urged Congress to address the rising costs of health care with tax-free savings accounts for medical expenses, tax credits to pay for insurance and ceilings on medical malpractice damage awards.
Reviving an old proposal, Bush called on Congress to overhaul Social Security to allow workers to invest some of their payroll taxes in private retirement accounts. He also renewed proposals to help Americans cope with the rising costs of health care and to make tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 permanent.
Bush revived his push to steer federal money to religious groups that provide social services.
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