President Bush last night implored an unsettled nation to reject the idea that “our culture is doomed to unravel” and used his fifth State of the Union address to promise an end to America’s oil “addiction.”
Addressing a joint session of Congress just hours after the swearing-in of Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., Mr. Bush said the bitter partisanship that has cleaved the two parties is leading to a defeatism that endangers the nation.
“As we look at these challenges, we must never give in to the belief that America is in decline, or that our culture is doomed to unravel,” he said. “The American people know better than that. We have proven the pessimists wrong before — and we will do it again.”
In a 53-minute speech that was markedly scaled down from last year’s State of the Union, in which he called in vain for Social Security reform, the president nonetheless sought to stir the national spirit to action.
But Democrats taunted him on that very topic by cheering and applauding when Mr. Bush noted that “Congress did not act last year on my proposal to save Social Security.”
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, smiling triumphantly, was among those who stood to celebrate this failure of the president, who responded by raising his voice and wagging his finger sternly.
“Yet the rising cost of entitlements is a problem that is not going away,” he scolded. “And with every year we fail to act, the situation gets worse.”
He vowed to continue his aggressive prosecution of the war on terror, improve health care, and move forward with a compassionate conservatism that he said is transforming America. He also paid tribute to civil rights icon Coretta Scott King, who died yesterday.
The president was interrupted 58 times by lawmakers from both parties, who were joined by guests ranging from Afghan government officials to family members of fallen U.S. troops to a military dog named Rex, who sat among honored guests in the balcony reserved for first lady Laura Bush.
Rex was accompanied by his master, Air Force Sgt. Jamie Dana, who was injured in Iraq and prohibited by law from adopting Rex upon the dog’s retirement. Mr. Bush signed legislation in December that allowed the adoption.
Mr. Bush made a point of repeating what many considered the most audacious goal of his second inaugural a year ago, a vow to end “tyranny in our world.”
“Abroad, our nation is committed to an historic, long-term goal. We seek the end of tyranny in our world,” he said. “The future security of America depends on it.”
Mindful of the increasingly acrimonious debate over Iraq, he added, “There is a difference between responsible criticism that aims for success, and defeatism that refuses to acknowledge anything but failure. Hindsight alone is not wisdom. And second guessing is not a strategy.”
But the president also drew sharp distinctions on national security, repeating his claim to have authority to order the National Security Agency to spy on terror suspects who communicate with people in the United States, saying that the program “has helped prevent terrorist attacks.”
“It remains essential to the security of America. If there are people inside our country who are talking with al Qaeda, we want to know about it. Because we will not sit back and wait to be hit again,” he said.
In the Democratic rebuttal to the speech, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine slammed the president’s policies with the mantra: “There is a better way.”
“The federal government should serve the American people,” he said. “But that mission is frustrated by this administration’s poor choices and bad management.
“Families in the Gulf Coast see that as they wait to rebuild their lives,” he said. “Americans who lose their jobs see that as they look to rebuild their careers. And our soldiers in Iraq see that as they try to rebuild a nation.”
The president sketched out the next 12 months as a series of fundamental choices between bold leadership and timid defeatism.
“In this decisive year, you and I will make choices that determine both the future and the character of our country,” he said. “We will choose to act confidently in pursuing the enemies of freedom — or retreat from our duties in the hope of an easier life.
“We will choose to build our prosperity by leading the world economy — or shut ourselves off from trade and opportunity. In a complex and challenging time, the road of isolationism and protectionism may seem broad and inviting — yet it ends in danger and decline.”
Again and again, Mr. Bush spoke of the importance of seizing the initiative.
“The only way to control our destiny is by our leadership,” he said. “So the United States of America will continue to lead.”
In this year’s version of his “axis of evil” list, Mr. Bush singled out five rogue regimes that oppress millions, although he did not cite the world’s most populous tyranny — China.
“At the start of 2006, more than half the people of our world live in democratic nations,” he said. “And we do not forget the other half — in places like Syria, Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea and Iran — because the demands of justice, and the peace of this world, require their freedom as well.”
Mr. Bush credited Egypt and Saudi Arabia for taking small steps toward democracy, but called on them to redouble their reform efforts. He also acknowledged that free elections can sometimes yield negative results, as evidenced by the victory of the terrorist group Hamas in last week’s Palestinian elections.
“Now the leaders of Hamas must recognize Israel, disarm, reject terrorism and work for lasting peace,” he said.
The president repeated his call for Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions and sponsorship of terrorism. He called on Tehran to stop “repressing its people,” but hinted that change must come from within.
“Tonight, let me speak directly to the citizens of Iran: America respects you, and we respect your country,” he said. “We respect your right to choose your own future and win your own freedom. And our nation hopes one day to be the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran.”
The president said the United States is “addicted to oil” and must break its dependence on foreign sources, especially in “unstable parts” of the world.
“The best way to break this addiction is through technology,” he said.
He set specific and difficult goals to reduce America’s consumption of foreign oil, calling for ambitious research to move forward swiftly to “change how we power our automobiles.” Advocating research on “better batteries for hybrid and electric cars,” the president said hydrogen and ethanol — “not just from corn, but from wood chips, stalks, or switch grass” — are the sources of the future.
Mr. Bush closed his fifth State of the Union with a lengthy call toward optimism and unity, urging bipartisan “work for the day when all Americans are protected by justice, equal in hope, and rich in opportunity.”
Describing “a quiet transformation,” the president said America is now home to “a revolution of conscience, in which a rising generation is finding that a life of personal responsibility is a life of fulfillment.”
“Violent crime rates have fallen to their lowest levels since the 1970s. Welfare cases have dropped by more than half over the past decade. Drug use among youth is down 19 percent since 2001. There are fewer abortions in America than at any point in the last three decades, and the number of children born to teenage mothers has been falling for a dozen years in a row,” he said. “And everyone here tonight, Democrat and Republican, has a right to be proud of this record.”
But he said that many Americans, especially parents, “still have deep concerns about the direction of our culture, and the health of our most basic institutions. They are concerned about unethical conduct by public officials, and discouraged by activist courts that try to redefine marriage.”
And he called on lawmakers to pass legislation to prohibit the “most egregious abuses of medical research — human cloning in all its forms, creating or implanting embryos for experiments, creating human-animal hybrids — and buying, selling or patenting human embryos. Human life is a gift from our Creator. That gift should never be discarded, devalued or put up for sale.”