Bush Describes the Nation as 'Confident and Strong'

Times Staff Writer

President Bush declared Tuesday in his State of the Union speech that the use of force abroad and deep tax cuts at home had allowed America to turn back its two largest threats -- terrorism and recession -- and that the nation had emerged from its challenges "confident and strong."

Speaking one day after Democrats caucused in Iowa to begin choosing a challenger to Bush, the president used the annual address to Congress to underscore the major themes of his reelection campaign. He said the war against Iraq had made the world safer and that his administration's aggressive approach against terrorists and rogue regimes had brought results in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

"Because of American leadership and resolve, the world is changing for the better," Bush said. As an example, he cited the recent decision by Libya to voluntarily abandon its nuclear weapons program.

"And one reason is clear: For diplomacy to be effective, words must be credible -- and no one can now doubt the word of America," Bush told a joint session of Congress and a national television audience.

Bush also said his economic policies, including tax cuts totaling $1.7 trillion over 10 years, had stimulated the economy out of recession. He noted that economic growth, home construction and homeownership rates are at record levels. But he said that "America's growing economy is also a changing economy," and that new programs were needed to help workers cope with those changes.

He proposed an education plan to increase math and science training for middle- and high-school students, as well as modest funding increases to help low-income students pay for college, and for community colleges to give workers new job skills.

He mentioned the need for new job creation but did not say that the nation had shed 2.3 million jobs since he took office in January 2001.

"Job training is important, and so is job creation," Bush said. "We must continue to pursue an aggressive, pro-growth economic agenda."

To that end, Bush pushed members of Congress to give permanent approval to a range of tax cuts he had guided into law, one of which expires this year and many of which end in 2010. Democrats and some Republicans blame the tax cuts for ballooning the federal deficit to $500 billion this year.

The president appeared confident and comfortable. He wore a navy suit, bright white shirt and scarlet tie -- a color theme that matched the large American flag that was his backdrop.

As Bush delivered key lines, the applause -- which interrupted him 60 times -- was often partisan. When he told members of Congress, "The tax relief you passed is working," many Democrats remained seated.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis (R-Va.) said the polarized reactions in the House chamber were emblematic of the state of the nation. "It's a divided country," he said. "And it's an election year."

One of Bush's best-received lines, which drew a bipartisan standing ovation, came when he told U.S. troops and their families, "My administration and this Congress will give you the resources you need to fight and win the war on terror."

Members of Congress also rose to honor Iraqi elder statesman Adnan Pachachi, who entered the chamber with First Lady Laura Bush and took several deep bows after Bush introduced him. Democrats and Republicans clapped enthusiastically for the silver-haired Sunni politician who on Monday was in New York seeking the United Nations' assistance in fashioning a political compromise for electing an interim government in Iraq.

The president opened the 54-minute speech with national security issues, a reversal of the traditional order, which places domestic policy first. Aides said the switch was aimed at highlighting the centrality of foreign policy to his presidency and to his reelection campaign.

While Democrats and some allies have criticized Bush's foreign policy as divisive and counterproductive, the president claimed a string of successes. In Iraq, he said, the "once all-powerful ruler was found in a hole, and now sits in a prison cell." Forty-five of the top 55 former officials of the Iraqi regime have been caught or killed, he said.

He said the process of building democracy in Iraq is proceeding, and noted the difficulties of the occupation only in passing. Since the start of the war in March, 503 Americans have lost their lives, 348 of them as a result of hostile action.

He also sounded a defiant note toward Iraqi insurgents who continue to mount ambushes and guerrilla attacks on U.S. forces: "The United States of America will never be intimidated by thugs and assassins."

In contrast to last year, when Bush carefully sought to build a case that the United States needed to act against Saddam Hussein, the president did not delve into the details of Iraq's disputed weapons program.

But he also gave no ground on the issue, pointing out that a U.S. weapons team continues to search for nonconventional weapons. He asserted that the team's interim report "identified dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed."

"Had we failed to act, this dictator's weapons of mass destruction program would continue to this day," Bush said.

Bush sought to emphasize that despite criticism of his team's go-it-alone approach to foreign policy, his administration had worked with 34 other nations in Iraq. And he said the U.N. has joined the effort, even though the body's officials have yet to sign on formally.

As he has many times since the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush conflated the issues of terrorism and Iraq -- listing attacks attributed to Al Qaeda and Iraqi terrorists in the same sentence. And he said the danger of terrorism is still so grave that Congress should act to extend the USA Patriot Act, a series of measures criticized by Democrats as restricting civil liberties, before it expires next year.

In his focus on terrorists and rogue regimes, Bush left unmentioned many traditional foreign policy concerns.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in a new spiral of violence, was not specifically mentioned. Bush said nothing of problems in Latin America, which at the start of his administration he called a top priority.

Bush called for a continuation of the efforts against Al Qaeda, but made no mention of the group's leader, Osama bin Laden, who remains at large.

In the second half of the address, Bush offered a rosy picture of the economy and laid out a number of modest proposals to help students, the unemployed and the disadvantaged.

Several had special appeal for the religious conservatives who are part of his core constituency. They included an increase in federal support for abstinence-based sex-education programs and religion-based drug-addiction programs.

The president also reiterated his commitment to defend "the sanctity of marriage," and criticized judges who have moved toward legalizing gay marriage. In a carefully worded passage, Bush suggested that a constitutional amendment might be required to stave off gay marriage, but he stopped just short of supporting the idea.

"If judges insist on forcing their arbitrary will upon the people, the only alternative left to the people would be the constitutional process," Bush said. "Our nation must defend the sanctity of marriage."

On the economy, Bush said his policies -- especially his three tax-cut packages -- helped the nation survive the serial shocks of recession, Sept. 11, corporate accounting scandals and Iraq war jitters. As evidence of the economy's gains, he cited the third quarter's 8.2% growth spurt, high levels of home building and ownership, increased manufacturing, low inflation and interest rates, rising exports, high productivity and recent job growth.

"These numbers confirm that the American people are using their money far better than government would have, and you were right to return it," Bush said, referring to tax cuts.

Many economists agree the Bush tax cuts deserve part of the credit, but they note that other factors have contributed. The Federal Reserve has pushed interest rates to 40-year lows, encouraging millions of Americans to buy houses, refinance mortgages and keep spending during the economic slump.

The president proposed a number of programs in other areas:

* Social Security. Bush called on Congress to let Americans invest a portion of their Social Security funds in private investment accounts. Economists have estimated that extending the tax cuts and partially privatizing Social Security could boost future deficits by as much as $2 trillion over the next decade.

* Primary education. Bush touted the No Child Left Behind Act -- one of his signature campaign issues in 2000 -- which imposed the most sweeping education reforms in a generation, saying the measure has "made the expectation of literacy the law of our country."

Since its passage by a large bipartisan majority, Bush has come under fire from congressional liberals who helped him enact the measure, saying that the president has not followed through with sufficient funding. Democrats such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts contend that the Bush administration has shortchanged the program by $7 billion.

* Higher education. Bush proposed expanding Pell Grants, the main assistance provided by the federal government to help low-income students pay for college, an idea promoted by many of the Democratic presidential contenders. The proposal comes after a year when many states, particularly California, imposed big fee and tuition hikes on students while making cutbacks in higher education programs.

The maximum annual Pell Grant per student over the last three years has risen by $50, up to the current level of $4,050. Bush signaled that he wanted to provide the extra Pell Grant money to students who take rigorous high school courses. The authority to do that has been in federal law since 1992, but the provision has never been funded.

In a separate proposal affecting higher education, Bush proposed increasing funding for community colleges as a way to expand job training.

* Health care. Bush pointed out his administration's success in adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare and rejected calls by Democratic presidential candidates for a more comprehensive approach to health coverage for all Americans.

Bush called for refundable tax credits, insurance buying pools for small businesses, tax-free health savings accounts and medical malpractice reform -- steps that some analysts called an election-year repackaging of long-standing Republican priorities.

* Prisoners. Bush proposed a $300 million "reentry initiative" for the 600,000 prisoners who are released from jail each year, marking something of a reversal for an administration that has focused on keeping prisoners incarcerated with increasingly harsh sentences.

Overall, the president's address was light on what some analysts, recalling the administration of Bush's father, refer to as the "vision thing." One idea he had been expected to showcase was the ambitious space exploration program unveiled last week. But that proposal has met with a cold shoulder from many fiscal conservatives, who see it as an expensive luxury at a time of big budget deficits.

An administration official acknowledged that initial reaction to the proposal had not been enthusiastic in many quarters of Congress. "It's not real popular," he said, attributing the problem to lack of understanding of how the program will be financed: mostly by redirecting resources rather than by increasing the space budget.

Bush also gave comparably short shrift to his immigration reform plan. While many Democrats have said it does not go far enough to open the doors of citizenship to temporary workers who would be admitted under the plan, some conservative Republicans opposed to liberalizing immigration rules think Bush wants to go too far.

"We're getting slammed from both sides," the administration official said.

The speech generated swift and strong reaction.

"Last year he lied to us about the war; this year he lied to us about the economy," said Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.). "We are nowhere near the end of this recession in terms of working people."

Sen. Zell Miller (D-Georgia), one of Bush's most reliable Democratic allies, praised Bush's foreign policy language.

"Some wring their hands and say, 'Oh he scares people'; I certainly hope so. It's obvious he's scared Khadafi, who is now dismantling his weapons of mass destruction."

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who supported Bush on Iraq, said he thought the speech was "unnecessarily partisan -- a strange position for one who took office claiming he was a uniter, not a divider."

Republican leaders in Congress have been dampening expectations that they will act on a bold legislative agenda. They note that this year's session will likely be polarized because of the election and truncated because of the many recesses scheduled to allow time for campaigning.


Times staff writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Edwin Chen, Mary Curtius, Sonni Efron, Peter Gosselin, Vicki Kemper, Janet Hook, Jon Marino, Paul Richter, Richard B. Schmitt, Elizabeth Shogren, Richard Simon and Warren Vieth in Washington and Stuart Silverstein in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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