WASHINGTON — President Bush described a nation at peril Tuesday in a State of the Union speech that focused on the threat of terrorism, the challenges in Iraq and the need for more economic growth.
In a nationally televised address that previewed the themes of his re-election campaign, Bush defended his decision to invade Iraq and warned Americans that the nation remains vulnerable to terrorists. He sought to play to his political strengths by casting himself as a tough-minded leader dealing with big challenges.
Borrowing a page from Abraham Lincoln, who urged voters during the Civil War to avoid "changing horses in midstream," Bush called on Americans to stick with him as he confronts terrorism, Iraq and economic problems.
"We have faced serious challenges together and now we face a choice. 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," he told a joint session of Congress. "We have not come all this way — through tragedy and trial and war — only to falter and leave our work unfinished."
On issue after issue, Bush described a nation confronted by challenges — at risk from terrorism, at risk from "thugs" in Iraq, at risk from "activist judges" who have been "redefining marriage" by striking down laws against gay marriage.
Declaring that "the people's voice must be heard," he threw his support behind a proposed constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex marriages.
"If judges insist on forcing their arbitrary will upon the people, the only alternative left to the people would be the constitutional process. Our nation must defend the sanctity of marriage," Bush said.
He also urged Congress to renew the Patriot Act, an anti-terrorism law that's set to expire next year. Critics say the law's expanded police powers trample on Americans' constitutional rights, but Bush called it a vital law enforcement tool.
Although Bush highlighted U.S. accomplishments in Iraq and in the war on terrorism, he said much more needs to be done. He urged Americans to avoid being lulled by the absence of attacks on the homeland since Sept. 11, 2001.
"That hope is understandable, comforting — and false," he said. "The terrorists continue to plot against America and the civilized world. And by our will and courage, this danger will be defeated."
He acknowledged the challenges in Iraq, where more than 500 U.S. troops have died since he came before Congress a year ago to make the case for war. Bush blamed the violence on holdouts from Saddam Hussein's ousted regime.
"These killers, joined by foreign terrorists, are a serious, continuing danger," he said. "We are dealing with these thugs in Iraq, just as surely as we dealt with Saddam Hussein's evil regime."
He sought to counter critics who questioned the need for the war last spring and who fault Bush for failing to win more international support.
And, despite the failure of U.S. troops to find any weapons of mass destruction or Iraqi ties to terrorist groups, he again cited those risks as a justification for war.
"Objections to war often come from principled motives. But let us be candid about the consequences of leaving Saddam Hussein in power," he said. "Had we failed to act, the dictator's weapons of mass destruction programs would continue to this day."
He said criticism about the extent of international support "is hard to explain to our partners in Britain, Australia, Japan, South Korea and 30 other countries that have offered to help in Iraq."
Turning to domestic issues, Bush expressed confidence that the economy would continue to improve, but called on Congress to take additional steps that he believes will help encourage job growth. His legislative to-do list includes a producer-friendly energy policy and a proposal to make temporary tax cuts permanent.
He also acknowledged some of the manufacturing jobs that have disappeared during his term would not come back. The nation has lost nearly 3 million jobs since Bush took office, many of them in the manufacturing sector. He urged Congress to approve a new job training program that would help displaced workers start new careers.
"America's economy is also a changing economy," Bush said. "We must respond by helping more Americans gain the skills to find good jobs."
In the Democratic response, Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said Bush has bungled key foreign and domestic issues.
Pelosi said Bush has alienated allies with a "go-it-alone foreign policy," while Daschle accused him of pushing corporate tax breaks at the expense of American workers.
"Instead of borrowing even more money to give more tax breaks to companies so that they can export even more jobs, we propose tax cuts and policies that will strengthen our manufacturing sector and create good jobs at good wages here at home," Daschle said.
Bush delivered the annual status report as new polls reflected mixed reviews of him from voters. While most Americans give the president high marks for his handling of national security issues, they are less confident about his ability to deal with the economy and other domestic concerns.
Lawmakers reacted to the speech along predictable party lines. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., shook his head in disgust when Bush raised the issue of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Republicans cheered when he called for permanent tax cuts.
"Unless you act, Americans face a tax increase," Bush told lawmakers. "What the Congress has given, the Congress should not take away. For the sake of job growth, the tax cuts you passed should be permanent."
On another politically potent issue — health care — Bush told lawmakers that the best way to expand health insurance coverage is to hold down health care costs. He advocated new restrictions on medical lawsuits and new tax breaks for insurance premiums and proposed letting small businesses band together to negotiate health insurance rates.
Click here for the text of President Bush's speech. The text of the Democratic response is available at: http://democrats.house.gov/infocus/state_of_union/.
Sound Off...What do you think?
Join the discussion.
This article is provided courtesy
of Stars & Stripes, which got its start as
a newspaper for Union troops during the Civil War, and
has been published continuously since 1942 in Europe and
1945 in the Pacific. Stripes reporters have been
in the field with American soldiers, sailors and airmen
in World War II, Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Gulf
War, Bosnia and Kosovo, and are now on assignment in the
Stars & Stripes Website
Copyright 2004 Stars and Stripes. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.