- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2004

President Bush will propose $120 million in new job-training grants for junior colleges tonight as he charts a course for the nation in a State of the Union address that also will call for an extension of tax cuts, immigration reform and sustained efforts to combat terrorism.

The 50-minute, big-picture speech that begins at 9 p.m. comes with a price tag, which will be spelled out Feb. 2, when the president sends his 2005 budget blueprint to Capitol Hill. Already, word is leaking out that the new budget calls for a 9 percent increase in domestic-security spending for a total of nearly $45 billion.

Mr. Bush also is expected to seek nearly twice as much for aid to Afghanistan, which is about $500 million this fiscal year. The budget will include a $1 billion increase throughout five years for the president’s ambitious space program and a $2 billion increase for major education programs.

The president spent much of yesterday working on the speech with key advisers and practicing delivery of the latest draft in the White House theater.

“It’s almost finished, in case you’re interested,” Mr. Bush said to reporters, but declined to discuss specifics.

The annual speech to Congress, which was viewed by 60 million Americans last year, comes just a day after the Democrats made their first move toward selecting an opponent for Mr. Bush in the Iowa caucuses. The evening will allow the president to recapture the political spotlight, rise above the partisan fray and wax poetic on his future view for America.

White House sources say Mr. Bush will make the case that under his stewardship, the United States is on the right path, reviving its economy, securing its borders and working to ensure that all children get a first-rate education.

Like a year ago, when Mr. Bush began to lay the groundwork for a pre-emptive strike against Iraq, the president will assert that America is safer today with the capture of dictator Saddam Hussein. And as he has in recent months, Mr. Bush will ask for patience in taking out the remnants of Saddam’s faction in Iraq, where U.S. casualties last week topped the 500 mark.

Mr. Bush plans to expand on the job-training proposal in a speech tomorrow at Owens Community College in Toledo, Ohio, a re-election battleground state that Mr. Bush already has visited more than a dozen times.

Job growth is expected to be a key issue in November’s presidential election and is one of the very few spots where Mr. Bush could be vulnerable. The economy has lost about 2 million jobs since he took office in 2001, the most since President Hoover.

Mr. Bush has been working on the speech with senior adviser Karl Rove, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, chief White House speechwriter Michael Gerson, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., Communications Director Dan Bartlett, and Karen Hughes, a former White House official and one of Mr. Bush’s closest advisers. The officials were seen leaving the Oval Office yesterday afternoon.

Top administration officials also are putting the finishing touches on an expansive federal budget that sources say will hold spending growth in most government programs to less than 4 percent.

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