The Start of Persuasion

In his State of the Union speech, President Bush was very persuasive in the broad outlines of his proposals. Who would argue with economic growth that employs "every man and woman who seeks a job"? Or with the need to reform Medicare - "a binding commitment of a caring society" - and give a prescription drug benefit to seniors? Or even with his frightening speculation about chemical or biological weapons from Iraq being used in a Sept. 11-like attack?

As grand oratory, Mr. Bush's words (and those of his skilled wordsmiths) should be commended for their conviction. His examples of heinous acts by the Iraqi government could very well win over a growing number of skeptics about forcing Saddam Hussein to disarm.

But on nearly every major issue, the well-crafted phrases left lingering questions. In the days ahead, Bush and his advisers will need to release more information and allow more critical examination and review.

The economy. Bush met his critics head on by claiming his tax-cut plan (the figure of $674 billion was not mentioned) would help expand the economy immediately and touch everyone who pays taxes. But he failed to mention how the tax cuts would be shared by different income groups - an issue the Democrats and many Americans want Congress to consider.

He also wants the federal discretionary spending to increase by 4 percent, or "not rise any faster than the paychecks of American families." But can a government facing a stumbling economy and the cost of war and its aftermath really stick to that limit?

Healthcare. Medicare needs reform, as many elderly Americans know. Bush would reduce bureaucratic control and bring in market flexibility to the program, but his speech didn't spell out the transition problems in achieving that. He would offer subsidies for prescription drugs only to those who left traditional Medicare for a new program using government-supported private health plans. He'll need to explain the fairness of that approach.

On one health issue, however, the epidemic of AIDS in Africa, the president made a bold proposal for spending more to help those victims. This "work of mercy," as he called it, is urgent.

War with Iraq. On this critical issue, the president was clear and emphatic about the potential danger posed by Iraq's weapons. But he indirectly acknowledged the need to produce more evidence of Iraq's specific danger by saying that Secretary of State Colin Powell will reveal intelligence information to the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 5.

If the speech was meant to "rally" Americans to "great causes," as Bush suggested earlier Tuesday, he walked a fine line between inspiring confidence and instilling fear. He crossed that line with graphic comments regarding the consequences of a chemical or biological attack, and the torture tactics of Hussein's regime.

The speech raises as many concrete questions as it posits broad points. If there is to be a war, what is the postwar plan? How long would the US remain in Iraq? And what would be the costs - in casualties, dollars, and US relations with the world?

Also left unstated in his speech was an important factor in his effectiveness as president: How will he reach out to the minority party in Congress? Democrats haven't made it easy for him. But he still must work to find common ground.

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