Bush Warns Against Shrinking Global Role

By Peter Baker and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 1, 2006

President Bush last night warned against "retreating within our borders" in the face of setbacks in Iraq and outlined a litany of domestic initiatives to make the United States more competitive overseas in a State of the Union address designed to rejuvenate his troubled presidency.

Bush, a onetime Texas oil industry executive, declared that "America is addicted to oil" and vowed to push for alternative energy sources allowing the United States to replace three-quarters of the petroleum now imported from the Middle East by 2025. Presenting his agenda for his sixth year in office, he also vowed to steer more money to scientific research and education while working to reduce health care costs.

But after a year of setbacks at home and abroad that dragged his approval ratings to record lows, Bush sounded more dutiful than triumphant, repeating arguments he regularly makes in national security speeches while running through a succession of economic proposals with little evident passion. Many of the ideas sprinkled through the 51-minute speech delivered from the House chamber to a national television audience were repackaged versions of proposals he has supported before.

Bush offered nothing to match the scale of the plan for private Social Security accounts that proved so unpopular on Capitol Hill last year that it died without even being introduced. When he acknowledged that defeat last night, Democratic lawmakers jumped to their feet to applaud raucously. Appearing startled, Bush wagged his finger at them and warned that the program's problems are not going away.

The president appeared more emotional in dismissing calls to pull troops out of Iraq, casting those pushing for withdrawal as advocates for retreat from the responsibilities of the world's lone superpower.

"In a complex and challenging time, the road of isolationism and protectionism may seem broad and inviting, yet it ends in danger and decline," Bush said. "The only way to protect our people, the only way to secure the peace, the only way to control our destiny is by our leadership." In a jab at Democrats who supported the war but have now turned against it, he added: "Hindsight alone is not wisdom. And second-guessing is not a strategy."

To dramatize his resolve, Bush invited the parents and widow of Staff Sgt. Daniel Clay to sit in the gallery with first lady Laura Bush. The president then read a letter the 27-year-old Marine wrote before he was killed in Iraq on Dec. 1: "I faced death with the secure knowledge that you would not have to. Never falter." Bush winked at the family members as lawmakers from both parties gave them a sustained standing ovation.

The fervent opposition to the war also played out in the chamber last night just minutes before Bush arrived, when peace activist Cindy Sheehan, invited by a Democratic House member, revealed an antiwar T-Shirt emblazoned with the question "How Many More?" She was arrested by Capitol Police.

In their official response after the speech, Democrats rejected Bush's arguments and mocked his proposals as little more than warmed-over rejects from past State of the Union addresses. Bypassing long-established leaders who have had trouble rallying the party in opposition to Bush, Democrats tapped their newest star, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who was elected in a Republican state in November and inaugurated 18 days ago.

"If we want to replace the division that grips our nation's capital, we need a change," Kaine said. "Democrats are leading that reform effort, working to restore honesty and openness to our government, working to replace a culture of partisanship and cronyism with an ethic of service and results."

Kaine, whose selection provoked liberal criticism within his party because of his more centrist views and his inexperience at the national level, insisted that Democrats are as committed to battling terrorists and reminded the nation that Virginia was one of the targets on Sept. 11, 2001. But, he added, "our commitment to winning the war on terrorism compels us to ask this question: Are the president's policies the best way to win this war?"

The competing visions set the stage for a contentious year heading into congressional elections this fall as polls suggest that many Americans have soured on Bush's leadership. With mounting casualties in Iraq, high gasoline prices at home, scandals in Washington and slow progress toward recovery in the hurricane-battered Gulf Coast region, Bush came into the speech with the support of 42 percent in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, eight percentage points below his level of a year ago.

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