- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2004

President Bush last night told Americans that they cannot turn the nation’s leadership over to someone not committed to seeing through the war on terrorism and cannot succumb to the “dangerous illusion” that the battle is over.

“We have not come all this way — through tragedy, trial and war — only to falter and leave our work unfinished,” he told a joint session of Congress in his State of the Union speech for his fourth year in office.

Although Mr. Bush was careful not to make his speech overtly political, he clearly was sketching out a vision of national and economic security that cannot be trusted to antiwar, pro-tax Democrats.

“Now we face a choice,” he said. “We can go forward with confidence and resolve — or we can turn back to the dangerous illusion that terrorists are not plotting and outlaw regimes are no threat to us.

“We can press on with economic growth, and reforms in education and Medicare,” he added. “Or we can turn back to the old policies and old divisions.”

The speech came a day after the president’s Democratic rivals battled each other in the Iowa caucuses. The serious tone of Mr. Bush’s speech and the formal trappings of a presidential address to a joint session of Congress contrasted sharply with Iowa’s dominant image — an emotional outburst by red-faced Democrat Howard Dean.

Taking full advantage of this juxtaposition, Mr. Bush spoke in sober tones about the defining issue of his presidency — the terrorist attacks of September 11. By chance, he even began speaking at 9:11 p.m., after shaking hands with lawmakers while walking through the cheering Senate chamber.

“Twenty-eight months have passed since September 11, 2001 — over two years without an attack on American soil — and it is tempting to believe that the danger is behind us,” the president said. “That hope is understandable, comforting — and false.”

Republicans applauded heartily throughout the speech, but Democrats mostly sat on their hands.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts was shown on television shaking his head at one point of the president’s speech; Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York applauded tepidly at another. Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York appeared to be asleep.

The 54-minute speech was interrupted for applause 68 times and received 35 standing ovations, three of which were joined in by all of the chamber’s Democrats.

Mr. Bush got obvious negative feedback only once. A scattered chorus of boos broke out when he called for renewing portions of the Patriot Act, which many conservative and liberal civil-liberties groups have criticized as infringing on freedoms.

In his first State of the Union not delivered immediately before or after a war, the president made an effort to pivot to domestic issues that will be important to his re-election. Insisting that he is unsatisfied by the booming economy, Mr. Bush vowed to stimulate lagging job growth.

“America’s growing economy is also a changing economy,” he explained. “As technology transforms the way almost every job is done, America becomes more productive and workers need new skills.”

He added: “We must respond by helping more Americans gain the skills to find good jobs in our new economy.”

Throughout the speech, the president tried to satisfy his two main constituencies — conservatives and centrists — who have conflicting views on issues such as immigration and government spending.

For example, mindful that his guest-worker proposal has infuriated conservatives, Mr. Bush tried to sell its economic and homeland-security merits.

“This reform will be good for our economy, because employers will find needed workers in an honest and orderly system,” he said.

In the event that this explanation did not satisfy conservatives, Mr. Bush sought to assuage them on another issue — the sanctity of marriage. In the process, the president implicitly contrasted himself with Mr. Dean, who as governor of Vermont signed a bill allowing homosexual civil unions.

Mr. Bush defined marriage as between a man and a woman, but complained that “activist judges” are stretching that definition. He warned that a constitutional amendment might be needed to clarify the issue.

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

The president also proposed new funding for abstinence programs in schools; the National Endowment for Democracy, which will assist freedom initiatives in the Middle East; a jobs program in the nation’s community colleges to train workers for expanding fields; and a Prisoner Re-entry Initiative to expand job training and placement for former convicts.

But he said he would submit a proposed fiscal 2005 budget in two weeks that will limit discretionary spending to less than 4 percent real growth.

On abstinence, Mr. Bush said, “Abstinence for young people is the only certain way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases. Decisions children make now can affect their health and character for the rest of their lives.”

Targeting cultural icons that effect children’s lives, Mr. Bush said athletes who use steroids “are not setting much of an example.”

Mr. Bush also made a rare threat concerning the Medicare bill he signed into law last month, portions of which Democrats have threatened to work to repeal.

“I signed this measure proudly, and any attempt to limit the choices of our seniors, or to take away their prescription-drug coverage under Medicare, will meet my veto,” he said to applause from Republicans. Mr. Bush never has used his veto pen.

Despite his attention to domestic concerns, the president spent much time on the doctrine of pre-emption. He said the United States cannot shrink from his doctrine to confront foes — pre-emptively if necessary — to secure Americans.

“As part of the offensive against terror, we are also confronting the regimes that harbor and support terrorists and could supply them with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons,” he said. “The United States and our allies are determined: We refuse to live in the shadow of this ultimate danger.”

The president made the case that his administration’s use of force has had a dramatic effect on nations such as Libya, Iran and Syria.

For example, just as America began Operation Iraqi Freedom, Libya started talks with the United States and Britain on dismantling its nuclear-weapons program.

“Nine months of intense negotiations involving the United States and Great Britain succeeded with Libya, while 12 years of diplomacy with Iraq did not. For diplomacy to be effective, words must be credible — and no one can now doubt the word of America,” he said.

Iran has agreed to allow international inspectors to inspect nuclear facilities kept secret for 18 years, and Syria has locked down its border with Iraq to prevent insurgent terrorists from infiltrating the country.

Under the plan that the president announced in November, the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq will transfer sovereignty to a new transitional government by the end of June. A transitional administration will be named by the end of May and after the June transfer of power, the U.S.-anointed council will be dissolved. U.S. forces will remain in the country only at the request of the new Iraqi government.

“As democracy takes hold in Iraq, the enemies of freedom will do all in their power to spread violence and fear,” Mr. Bush said, noting that the violence continues because “men who ran away from our troops in battle are now dispersed and attack from the shadows.”

But he added, the U.S.-led coalition has now captured or killed 45 of the 55 most-wanted members of Saddam Hussein’s regime, he said. “The United States of America will never be intimidated by thugs and assassins.”

Mr. Bush also said the United States remains committed to establishing freedom in Afghanistan, which replaced the Taliban government that had provided a haven to Osama bin Laden with an elected democracy.

“The men and women of Afghanistan are building a nation that is free and proud and fighting terror,” he said.

Several U.S. soldiers joined first lady Laura Bush in her box overlooking the floor of the House chamber, including Marine Sgt. Dawn Campbell and Staff Sgt. Joey Wommack, whose Army unit pulled rear security duty during the operation that captured Saddam.

Also in the box were Adnan Pachachi, president of the Iraqi Governing Council; Hoshyar Zebari, Iraqi interim foreign minister; Ahmed Chalabi, Iraqi Governing Council member; and Rend Rahim Francke, the head of the Iraqi Interests Section in Washington.

Some Democrats grumbled about the timing of last night’s speech, saying it stole the spotlight from their contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. The president will attempt to maintain that spotlight today and tomorrow by road-testing the speech in Ohio, Arizona and New Mexico.

Democrats criticized the president’s speech in their rebuttal, which was delivered by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. The Democratic presidential candidates also got into the act, accusing the president of class warfare.

“The State of the Union may look rosy from the White House balcony or the suites of George Bush’s wealthiest donors, but hard-working Americans will see through this president’s efforts to wrap his radical agenda with a compassionate ribbon,” said Mr. Dean, campaigning in New Hampshire.

Wesley Clark called Mr. Bush’s proposals “nothing but special effects designed to hide the sad truth that for these three long years, George W. Bush has helped those who have most, hurt those who have least, and ignored everyone in between.”

Four top lawmakers were asked by congressional leaders to miss the speech and go to undisclosed locations in case the Capitol was hit by a catastrophic attack. Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans also did not attend the address. By tradition, a member of the president’s Cabinet misses the speech as a similar precaution.

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