President Bush plans to further his case for remaking Social Security during his State of the Union address tonight, in a speech also expected to touch on the need for strict budget discipline and to celebrate the spread of democracy in the elections in Afghanistan, Ukraine, the Palestinian territories and, most recently, Iraq.
In a briefing for reporters, a senior administration official, who declined to speak on the record, said Bush's televised address to a joint session of Congress will be divided evenly between domestic policy and foreign affairs. On the domestic front, the president plans to issue a call for fiscal discipline in preparation for an extremely tight federal budget.
The budget, to be announced Monday, will propose a virtual freeze in discretionary spending unrelated to defense or homeland security, as part of Bush's plan to cut the deficit in half by 2009 from a 2004 deficit of $521 billion. The task of cutting the deficit is complicated by the estimated $5 billion a month consumed by the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We will be putting forward a budget that reflects our times," the official said. "And that is, we've had to fund our country's government in a way that reflects the fact that we're a nation at war."
Bush also plans to rejoin the Social Security debate by highlighting the system's long-term fiscal problems and explaining why allowing workers to divert a portion of their payroll taxes into private accounts would contribute to a "permanent fix" for the program. "He will flesh out new details and how he views the personal retirement accounts will work," the official said. "He will talk about why, as I said, it's necessary that we need to permanently fix the system."
Still, Bush is unlikely to use the prime-time address to lay out specific proposals regarding the cuts in promised Social Security payments likely to accompany private accounts, despite requests from some lawmakers for him to do so. "The whole key is, how much -- what will help and what will hurt. What will be inviting to both parties, what won't," the official said.
Bush also plans to call for an "up or down vote" for his judicial nominees, some of whom have been blocked by Senate Democrats, the official said. Since his reelection, Bush has renominated for federal judgeships 20 people who were blocked by Democrats, rekindling the partisan battles over the makeup of the federal judiciary.
White House officials describe the impending presidential speech as "a blueprint" to complement the lofty ideals Bush articulated in his Jan. 20 inaugural address. In that speech, he touted his vision of an ownership society and his long-term goal of ending tyranny worldwide.
First lady Laura Bush said on NBC's "Today" show that she will be flanked by a voter from Afghanistan and another from Iraq as she listens to the president's speech from the House gallery. "When you look at the three elections that we've had in the last few months, in Afghanistan, in the Palestinian territory, and then this weekend in Iraq, it's very, very encouraging," she said. "And it's also a sign that people the world over want to live in freedom and want to have a democracy in their country."
Presidential speechwriters have gone through 17 drafts of the address, which Bush practiced twice yesterday, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. As he prepared for the speech, Bush continued to reach out to foreign leaders in hopes of enlisting more assistance in Iraq following Sunday's elections. He called Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mexican President Vicente Fox and the leaders of NATO and the European Union in the third day of phone conversations with international leaders.
White House officials have little hope of persuading European skeptics to contribute troops to U.S.-led combat missions in Iraq but are exploring whether they can solicit more international aid in terms of reconstruction, finances and training and equipping Iraqi security forces. Bush spoke with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer about the progress of a NATO training mission. "There are still challenges that remain, and we hope all countries will do their part to help the Iraqi people build upon this weekend's great success," McClellan said.
Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.