Hours after 36 U.S. troops died in Iraq, President Bush today gave a glowing report of progress there and said that the Iraqi elections on Sunday would be "a grand moment for those who believe in freedom."
Speaking to reporters hastily summoned to a news conference, Bush refused to say how large the turnout needed to be to make the voting credible.
Insurgents have vowed to target Iraqis who take part in the national and provincial elections intended to move the country toward democracy and establish a constitution.
"I urge all people to vote (and) defy those terrorists," the president said.
Bush placed the voting in the broader context of the inaugural speech he delivered Thursday, setting out as broad U.S. foreign policy the need to support freedom around the globe.
The roughly 45-minute session in the White House dealt largely with Iraq and Social Security, issues the president has made the centerpiece of his domestic policy agenda as his second term gets underway.
With its focus on the two top issues facing the president, it drew up the sharp differences between Bush and his largely Democratic critics, as the situation in Iraq continues to seemingly unravel, even as the election nears, and the search for compromise in revising the Social Security system shows no sign of progress.
On Social Security, the president ruled out in definitive language any increase in the payroll tax, as he has in the past. Some critics of his proposals have said that the problems the retirement system is expected to face at mid-century could be alleviated with relatively small increases in the amount employers and employees pay into the system.
Bush refrained from using the word "crisis," which he used in the past to characterize the system's problems, although he said that without improvements, the system would eventually be bankrupt.
At the same time, he challenged critics of his plans who he said are seeking to "derail" it "by scaring people."
The president said he would present details of his proposal in the State of the Union address in a week.
He cited figures indicating that within 13 years it would be operating in the red, and by 2042, it would be bankrupt. While there is debate over how much needs to be done to protect the retirement system, and by when, there is general agreement that the growing number of retirees in coming years will put demands on the system that it will be unable to handle without changes.
Bush has supported allowing younger workers to use some of the money that would otherwise go into the Social Security trust fund to be invested in private accounts.
He argues that such a system would give these workers greater control over their retirement funds. At the same time, he has said, as he did today, that older workers and current retirees would rely on the current system, and their retirement income from Social Security would remain unaffected.
"If you have a child who is 25, when that person gets near retirement, the system will be bankrupt," the president said. "Now is the time to act."
On other matters, Bush said:
.Changes in immigration laws would be a top priority this year, although Republican congressional leaders have not placed the matter high on their agenda;
.He is moving deliberately in the search for a director of national intelligence, a position that has been created in the legislation that emerged from the study of intelligence failures leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks;
.He opposed payments to commentators to support government policies, and that such payments made in the past were mistaken.
The president used the news conference to encourage the Senate to act quickly on two key Cabinet nominations — that of Condoleezza Rice, his national security advisor, to be secretary of State, and that of Alberto Gonzales, his White House counsel, to be attorney general.
By midday, the Senate, as expected, approved Rice's nomination, by a vote of 85 to 13, and the Senate Judiciary Committee, by the narrow margin of 10 to 8, sent the Gonzales nomination to the full Senate.
The president spoke on what became the deadliest day for U.S. troops in Iraq since the war began there. A helicopter crash killed 31 troops, and five were killed in insurgents' attacks.
The president said that the Defense Department was investigating the cause of the crash.
Addressing the approaching elections, Bush said that despite clear intimidation of would-be voters, "we anticipate a lot of Iraqis will vote."
And, more broadly, he added: "I anticipate a grand moment in Iraqi history."
With the number of Americans who say the war was a mistake climbing, new funding required to the tune of $80 billion, and the Pentagon expecting to deploy at least 100,000 troops there for another year, Bush was asked what he would say to Americans who questioned his decision to pursue the war.
"The world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power," he replied.
He also said that his declaration that U.S. policy would pursue liberty around the world did not necessitate sharp shifts in U.S. foreign policy. He said that in meetings with Chinese leaders and with President Vladimir Putin of Russia he had raised sensitive issues dealing with human rights situations in each country.