President Bush's State of the Union address tomorrow will include neither a final ultimatum for Iraq nor a timetable for deciding on war, but will try to convince skeptics around the world that Saddam Hussein is an imminent danger to peace, officials said yesterday.
A senior administration official said Bush's discussion of Iraq in the 9 p.m. address to a joint session of Congress "will not be eye-popping revelatory."
"The Iraq section of the State of the Union will be informative and highly educational, but it won't be the last word," the official said. "It will be a discussion with the public about why the president feels that peace is threatened by Saddam Hussein's relentless quest for weapons of mass destruction and why Hussein is such a risk when he is in possession of such weapons."
Before turning to Iraq and other security issues, Bush will spend the first half of his roughly 50-minute speech trying to show he is chastened by the economic and health care worries facing his administration and the country, officials said. Bush plans to say he is optimistic about finding solutions and that he believes the nation is "equal to the task," communications director Dan Bartlett said.
In a reflection of Bush's effort to show he is attuned to working-class concerns at a time of sour economic indicators, he does not plan to repeat his declaration in last year's address that "the state of our union has never been stronger." Officials said the address will be crucial to recapturing voters' sympathy as he heads into his formal reelection campaign.
On Iraq, the president's aides said he plans to keep his options open after United Nations weapons inspectors give their assessments this morning of Hussein's compliance during the first 60 days of inspections.
Bush has many incentives to buy time, including resistance from crucial potential allies, rising skepticism in polls, and the assessment of defense officials and analysts that the military force needed for an invasion may not be in place until late February or early March.
Officials suggested that Bush's speech will include no new evidence of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons stocks in Iraq, or linking Hussein to the al Qaeda terrorist network or the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "This is not a place for a slide show," Bartlett said yesterday on ABC's "This Week."
Another official, repeating the administration's contention that the burden of proof is on Hussein, said Bush's speech "doesn't need to convince anybody that Iraq hasn't done what they said they would do."
"He only needs to convince people of what the consequences should be," the official said.
White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that Hussein "should anticipate that the United States will use whatever means necessary to protect us and the world from a holocaust."
Asked whether that includes the possible use of nuclear weapons, Card said, "I'm not going to put anything on the table or off the table, but we have a responsibility to make sure Saddam Hussein and his generals do not use weapons of mass destruction."
Officials said that during the domestic portion of the speech, Bush will try to put the onus on Democrats by calling on them to support his plans for a new tax cut and a reorganization of Medicare, and he will cite the precedent of Democrats joining Republicans to pass his first tax cut and his education plan, along with creating a Department of Homeland Security and giving the administration greater trade negotiating power.
Officials said Bush's Medicare plan would cost nearly $400 billion over 10 years and would help senior citizens pay for prescription drugs by allowing them to choose to join a managed-care plan. To defuse expected criticism that the proposal is an effort to privatize delivery of some Medicare benefits, the administration plans to argue that the system would allow senior citizens to have choices that are similar to those now enjoyed by federal employees.
The speech includes a restatement of Bush's commitment to what aides call his "compassion agenda," and he is to announce new initiatives to help religious organizations provide federally funded social services.
One official said Bush will emphasize "priorities, not a litany or laundry list or series of microbursts." Another official said Cabinet secretaries had little input into the speech.
Aides said Bush met with his speechwriters in mid-December to begin discussing the goal and tone of the address. Bush's chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, prepared the early drafts in consultation with Bartlett. Bush was given a draft to mark up two Fridays ago, then held his first formal rehearsal, complete with TelePrompTer, last Friday. He held another run-through yesterday.
Karen Hughes, who left the White House staff in July but has remained a significant presence as a consultant to the Republican National Committee, was a sounding board for Bush and the speechwriters and helped determine the order of elements within the speech, officials said. She ate dinner with Bush on Thursday and went to church with the president and first lady Laura Bush yesterday.
Democrats began their rebuttals on Friday, with the Democratic National Committee releasing a 78-page research report accusing Bush of "misplaced priorities, missed opportunities and the myth of leadership."
Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will give a "pre-buttal" today at the National Press Club.
"For two years, America has given the president the benefit of the doubt on his economic plan," she plans to say. "Today, the American people have seen very few benefits and have a lot more doubt."
The Democrats' formal response tomorrow night will be delivered by Washington Gov. Gary Locke, the chairman of the Democratic Governors' Association.