In his State of the Union address at 9 tonight, President Bush will press his plan to overhaul Social Security, call for a near-freeze in nondefense spending and reiterate his proposal to relax immigration laws, a senior administration official said yesterday.
The president also will make clear his desire for a diplomatic solution to the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program, call on North Korea to return to six-way talks in a bid to end the nuclear crisis gripping the Korean Peninsula, and rally Americans on the need for the United States to stay the course in Iraq, pointing to the successful elections on Sunday as proof that the U.S. policy there is working.
“The State of the Union will lay out specific goals, immediate and long-term, for how and where we’ll lead America, and a blueprint for a second term,” the official said.
On Social Security, Mr. Bush will offer some new details and significantly “move the ball” on his plan to reform the entitlement program, although he will not offer specific legislation because he does not want to be viewed as trying to “cram” his plan down the throats of lawmakers, the official said.
“He wants to recognize that there are ideas and solutions that members of Congress will have. And what always happens in this case is that if we were to put out a detailed plan in the first week of January, the Congress says, ‘There he goes again. All he wants to do is cram down his own plan. He doesn’t even want to listen to us.’ ”
Senate Democrats have chided the president’s broad framework to create personal accounts that will allow Americans more control over the money they invest in Social Security. Although no Democrat in the House or Senate has offered a competing plan, Democrats complain that Mr. Bush has failed to provide enough details to assess his proposal.
The official acknowledged that the president is caught in a Catch-22 position. Because Mr. Bush has not offered details of his proposal, the official said, opponents are now saying, ” ‘Well, he’s not leading. He doesn’t want to provide details. He wants us to do it.’ ”
Still, the official, who briefed a roomful of reporters about the annual address on the condition of anonymity, said the president will offer some details and will “move the ball.”
“This is not legislation or every aspect of how the reforms should take place, but it will advance the ball,” the official said. “He will flesh out new details and how he views the personal retirement accounts will work. He will talk about why, as I said, it’s necessary that we need to permanently fix the system.”
Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said, “In the State of the Union, you’re going to hear him talk in greater detail about ideas for strengthening and saving Social Security, in greater detail than he has previously.”
The senior official said the president has just one objective: “That’s passing a bill. And if that requires putting out all the details early, he will do so; all details later, he will do so; partial details — his point is, let’s get something passed. But there will be no doubt that the president [will] provide the political leadership necessary, spend the political capital, if you will, to get this issue before the American people and, obviously, hopefully passed through the United States Congress.”
Additionally, Mr. Bush plans to “make it very clear, as he has in the weeks of this new term, that he will directly reach out to Democrats on issues, that he wants to work with members of both parties when it comes to solving some of the biggest issues facing our country.”
In the speech, which in practice sessions on Monday and yesterday ran about 40 minutes, not accounting for applause, and was in its 17th draft, Mr. Bush will open with domestic issues and move on to foreign affairs, giving each roughly equal time. But on the domestic front, “he will spend a significant portion of his time” on Social Security reform, the official said.
On international issues, Mr. Bush will talk about the U.S. mission in Iraq and will make clear that he wants a peaceful diplomatic solution to the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. That stance, the official said, is what Mr. Bush has urged for months, despite press reports to the contrary.
“I’ve noticed that many people don’t pay attention to the words the president has used, in which he has demonstrated time after time after time that he believes that diplomacy, working with our European allies, is the most effective way” to handle the situation, the official said.
Although North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il recently indicated to a congressional delegation that visited Pyongyang last month that a conciliatory note by Mr. Bush in the annual speech could set the stage for the communist country’s return to six-party talks, the administration official said the president will hold fast to his current policy.
“The president will reiterate the fact that six-party talks are important,” the official said. “You can expect him to renew the call for the approach that he believes is the most successful way of dealing with the North Koreans.”
Mr. Bush also will speak on the Middle East peace process and the Palestinian elections, noting that “we have an opportunity before us,” the official said.
On federal spending, the administration official pointed to Congress’ approval last year of a 0.8 percent cap on increases in nondefense, non-homeland security discretionary spending, and said the president “will articulate a similar type of goal or principle.”
“He’s listened to Congress, he’s heard their calls, both from Republicans and Democrats, and he will give them a perfect opportunity to join him in a spirit of fiscal discipline,” the official said.
First lady Laura Bush said yesterday that among those sitting with her in the House gallery as special guests during the speech will be two voters, one from Iraq and another from Afghanistan, who had participated in the countries’ elections.
Tonight’s speech is just the beginning of an administration offensive to get out its message. Tomorrow, Mr. Bush heads out on a five-state stump to bring his message directly to Americans, stopping in North Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Arkansas and Florida. Meanwhile, Bush administration officials are going to fan out across the country to promote the president’s second-term agenda in meetings and public appearances.