- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2004

During a presidential election year, it is inevitable that a State of the Union address will be viewed as a political statement. Indeed, the speech traditionally is the opening salvo of the yearlong political campaign ahead. Tuesday’s address was no different and can be interpreted as an indication of the direction George W. Bush will take this year.

As such, it was no surprise that Mr. Bush focused on the war on terrorism (and its Iraq component), which he has led with success. But putting national defense on the forefront of the government agenda is not merely an election-year calculation; it is a necessity to keep the country safe. He defended his decisions with reason and passion. (Particularly poignant was the insistence that America does not need “a permission slip” to defend itself.) In her rebuttal, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi attacked Mr. Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq, but polls reveal that most Americans feel safer with Saddam Hussein out of power — a real achievement in uncertain times.

Overall, the president’s stand on economic issues was promising. He deserves to be commended for showing restraint in not proposing a laundry list of budget-busting new programs, a strong temptation for incumbents seeking re-election. However, it was disappointing that he did not offer a plan or mention the need to reduce the deficit. But he was correct in asserting that making his tax cuts permanent is the surest way to guarantee continued economic growth. It also was gratifying that he put making Social Security viable for younger Americans out for debate for the election. While we do not approve of the White House’s ill-considered immigration initiative, we were relieved that the president did not seek legislation this year.

A common Democratic criticism of Mr. Bush is that he is out of touch with common Americans, a charge that hurt his father’s re-election campaign (and, obviously, the reason the Democrats made the claim). It would have been difficult for the current President Bush to have more successfully rebutted this smear than through the timely announcement of his anti-drug proposal Tuesday night. Rich or poor, black or white, urban or suburban, most parents in this country have heard stories about neighborhood kids using drugs in school and worry about their own children getting into trouble with illicit narcotics. Through the president’s initiative to fight drugs in schools, which offers to fund school districts that want to employ drug testing but cannot afford the program, Mr. Bush showed that he is very much in touch with one of the most persistent practical concerns of parents today.

Perhaps the most important statement on social issues was Mr. Bush’s forthright but sensitive defense of marriage as an institution between a man and a woman only. In a meeting with our editorial board yesterday, Sen. Wayne Allard told us he “did not expect the president to come out so strongly in favor of the constitutional amendment [to ban homosexual ‘marriage’],” a proposal the senator has sponsored. Mr. Bush also made an impassioned defense of the role of faith-based institutions for social services, and more than once he attacked the “arbitrary will” of “activist judges” who are redefining our nation by court order.

On the cultural front, one issue oddly missing from the president’s speech was abortion. In reviewing the administration’s successes, passage and enactment of the partial-birth abortion ban — at his request — stand as one of the most important achievements of Mr. Bush’s three years in office. Given that three-quarters of Americans supported the first scaling back of abortion-on-demand since the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade fiat in 1973, it is perplexing that the pro-life milestone was not mentioned in a speech that lasted an hour.

The most obvious fault of this year’s State of the Union address was the president’s defensive tone. This is partly understandable given how relentlessly he has been attacked over the past year for even the slightest setbacks in domestic and foreign policy. On balance, however, the state of the Union is strong, and the president has an extraordinarily high 58 percent approval rating for his leadership of the country during a very difficult time. Mr. Bush has boundless confidence in America. He has room to show more in himself.

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