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.
Still, he entered the chamber riding the high of a major political victory earlier in the day, the Senate's confirmation of Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court on a 58 to 42 vote after a high-pitched, if futile, Democratic filibuster. Alito, a favorite of conservatives, was quickly sworn in so he could attend the speech in his newly awarded robes. Members of both parties stood to applaud him and new Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., as did their fellow justices.
Bound by rising deficits exacerbated by the war in Iraq and the recovery from Hurricane Katrina, Bush framed the collection of domestic proposals he presented last night as a collective renewal of American strength in the world.
While Social Security occupied nearly a quarter of last year's State of the Union address, this year it barely rated a mention. Conceding defeat for now, Bush proposed a bipartisan commission to figure out how to rein in the spiraling costs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Likewise, while he promised a year ago to rewrite the U.S. tax code to make it more fair, he made no mention last night of the dead-on-arrival plan ultimately crafted by the commission he appointed.
Focusing on more manageable goals, Bush called for an "American Competitiveness Initiative" that would double research in physical sciences in the next decade, train 70,000 teachers to lead high school Advanced Placement math and science classes, hire 30,000 scientists and engineers to work as teachers, and make permanent current tax breaks for research and development. The White House said the plan would cost $5.9 billion next year and $136 billion over 10 years.
In an effort to control health care expenses, he called on Congress to expand health savings accounts, which allow people to save money for medical expenses tax-free. Account holders then buy low-cost but high-deductible coverage for large medical outlays. He again called for legislation to limit medical malpractice litigation and to make it easier for people to keep medical insurance without extra cost if they change jobs or start a business.
But he did not offer a widely reported proposal to let Americans deduct more of their out-of-pocket medical expenses. Under current tax rules, such expenses can be deducted only if they exceed 7.5 percent of adjusted gross income.
With 45 million Americans uninsured, Bush thinks his proposals will eventually hold down medical costs by providing people a financial incentive to be involved in health care decisions. Some experts, though, doubt the accounts would lower the cost of medical care, although they say they could help families pay for it, much as individual retirement accounts help people save for their retirements.
Just as he has in every State of the Union address, Bush said the nation must reduce its reliance on foreign oil. To do so, he called for 22 percent more federal funding for research into alternative fuels, highlighting the prospect of cars running on hydrogen and ethanol fuel made from corn, wood chips, stalks or switch grass. But he made no mention of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world," he said.
Since Bush took office, net imports have risen from 53 percent to 60 percent. But by focusing on his goal of reducing the use of oil from the Middle East by 75 percent, he singled out the share that is not rising. Oil from the Persian Gulf now represents 11 percent of U.S. oil consumption, less than when Bush became president.
Bush repeated appeals to Congress to make his tax cuts permanent, create a guest worker program for illegal immigrants and ban human cloning. He also asked Congress to give him a line-item veto to strike out pork projects from spending bills and promised to eliminate or reduce 140 programs in his upcoming budget proposal, or $14 billion in savings. But he did not explain what else he would do to meet his goal of cutting the $400 billion-plus deficit in half by 2009 .
Five months after Katrina ravaged New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region, Bush vowed to fulfill the $85 billion recovery effort, while promising again to address the larger issues of race and poverty exposed by Katrina. "As we recover from a disaster," he said, "let us also work for the day when all Americans are protected by justice, equal in hope and rich in opportunity."
On foreign affairs, Bush largely recapitulated his approach and renewed his second-term promise to spread democracy and freedom around the world. He urged allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia to do more to open up their autocratic systems. At the same time, he acknowledged that last week's Palestinian election had elevated the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, which the United States has designated a terrorist organization.
"The Palestinian people have voted in elections -- now the leaders of Hamas must recognize Israel, disarm, reject terrorism and work for lasting peace," he said.
Bush again defended his once-secret program to eavesdrop, without warrants, on telephone calls and e-mails between people in the United States and people overseas suspected of terrorist ties. And he called on Congress to renew elements of the USA Patriot Act that empower law enforcement agencies in the hunt for terrorists but will expire next week.
Noting a number of hopeful social trends, including declines in violent crime, abortion, teenage pregnancy, welfare cases and drug abuse, Bush said the nation is undergoing "a quiet transformation -- a revolution of conscience, in which a rising generation is finding that a life of personal responsibility is a life of fulfillment."
Still, he said, many citizens remain concerned by a coarsening of the culture and are turned off by "unethical conduct by public officials, and discouraged by activist courts that try to redefine marriage."
But several Democrats said the president should have been more frank and forceful in confronting recent ethics lapses in Washington. "He missed an opportunity to propose some real lobbying and ethics reforms," said Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.).
Staff writer Charles Babington contributed to this report.