Bush delivers muscular message

President defends aggressive tactics overseas, stands by domestic policy initiatives.

President George W. Bush used an election-year State of the Union address to deliver a muscular message to Americans in general and Democrats in particular.

In a speech that was alternately feisty and confident, the president defended his administration's often aggressive tactics overseas, and stood by his major domestic policy initiatives - some of them controversial.

He admonished Congress, for instance, to renew his sweeping tax cuts. He defended the No Child Left Behind Act that critics say is turning schools into testing clinics but he thinks is dramatically advancing American education. He lauded the far-reaching Patriot Act that is criticized for undercutting civil liberties but he says is providing invaluable protection in the war on terror. He called for taking initial steps to privatize Social Security, curbing the power of trial lawyers (a big Democratic constituency), and granting temporary legal status to illegal immigrant workers.

"There was very little content for anybody but his (Republican) base," said delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), Washington's nonvoting representative in the House.

The president's most spirited defense was reserved for the administration's actions overseas. "Because of American leadership and resolve, the world is changing for the better," Mr. Bush said.

The invasion of Iraq was justified, he said, because it rid the world of a torturous dictator and a regime whose weapons "programs" were continuing and threatened world security. "The world without Saddam Hussein's regime is a better and safer place," he said.

Bush said the United States would pursue whatever actions abroad it thought was necessary to protect American interests - with or without the approval of other nations. There is a difference, the president said, "between leading a coalition of the many nations and submitting to the objections of a few."

And then, in perhaps the most pointed remark of the speech, he added: "America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our country."

That statement could be viewed as a direct rejoinder to Democrats - including many of the presidential candidates - who think the US should quickly hand over all operations in Iraq to the United Nations.

"He has pursued a go-it-alone foreign policy that leaves us isolated abroad and steals the resources we need for education and healthcare here at home," said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi who delivered her party's official response to the speech along with Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle.

That the speech laid down some clear markers shouldn't be surprising. While Democratic candidates compete for voters' attention in New Hampshire, Tuesday night's State of the Union address gave Bush an hour of prime time to define and defend his presidency and make the case for a second term.

On the third anniversary of his inauguration, the president spoke to a packed House chamber and a television audience estimated in the tens of millions. Until Bush makes his acceptance speech at the Republican convention in early September, tonight's speech is the most important platform the president will have to go over the heads of his opponents to the American people.

Not surprisingly, the president adopted a confident tone in describing America's prospects under his administration. "We have not come all this way through tragedy, and trial, and war only to falter and leave our work unfinished. Americans are rising to the tasks of history, and they expect the same of us."

The White House takes the public position that the White House has been working on this speech since October and the carefully orchestrated events that surround it are not political. White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters this morning that the president "remains focused on the priorities of the American people."

Still, tonight's address is being followed Wednesday by campaign-style appearances around country. Wednesday morning the president arrives in vote-rich Ohio, a state the president won in 2000 but now is considered up for grabs as a result of lagging employment in the manufacturing sector. The president has already visited the Buckeye state more than a dozen times. On Friday, he hosts an East Room event for the World Series champion Marlins who just happen to hail from the hotly-contested state of Florida.

New poll data show why the White House welcomed the opportunity to burnish the Bush record. His overall approval rating remains a healthy 58 percent according to a newly released ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted January 15-18.

But the poll also puts Bush in a statistical dead heat with Democrats nine months before the election. When matched against a generic Democratic candidate, the president wins 48 percent to 46 percent, a lead that is within the margin of error.

Of even greater concern to the president's supporters, on the question of who is trusted to handle the nation's major problems, the ABC/Post survey found the president on a par with Democrats - 45 percent to 44 percent, a reduction of 18 points in the president's standing nine months ago. ABC News polling chief Gary Langer wrote, "The president's strength is significant but narrowly based, and that makes it potentially vulnerable."

Tonight's speech started in the area where the ABC poll shows the president has a two-to- one lead over Democrats: on the battle against terrorism and his handling of the war in Iraq.

"The terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States and war is what they got," the president said.

While arguing that "America is on the offensive against the terrorists," Mr. Bush also sounded a sober note of caution. "Twenty-eight months have passed since September 11, 2001 -- over two years without an attack on American soil and it is tempting to believe that the danger is behind us. That hope is understandable, comforting, and false."

The administration is eager to maintain support for the war in Iraq in the face of the deaths of more than 500 American military personnel. "Because of American leadership and resolve, the world is changing for the better," the president said. He added that, "The work of building a new Iraq is hard, and it is right. And America has always been willing to do what it takes for what is right."

References to Hussein's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction formed the centerpiece of Bush's State of the Union address in 2003. The president used strikingly different language this time. David Kay, named by the CIA in June to head an inspection for those weapons, has searched for 10 months for the weapons without finding them. But the president said Kay's report "identified dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed from the United Nations. Had we failed to act, the dictator's weapons of mass destruction programs would continue to this day."

In his three previous State of the Union appearances, Bush has opened with domestic issues and closed with international topics. Tonight the order was reversed to let the president close with arguments to shore up his standing on topics closer to home where polls show his standing with voters is weakest. Nearly six in ten Americans tell pollsters that Democrats would do a better job on domestic issues such as the economy, prescription drugs for the elderly, the budget deficit, and immigration.

The president argued that, thanks to the tax cuts he pushed, "the economy is strong and growing stronger."

With unemployment a key concern in key industrial states, the president called on Congress to help jobless workers by providing training programs. "America's growing economy is also a changing economy," Bush said. "As technology transforms the way almost every job is done, America becomes more productive, and workers need new skills. We must respond by helping more Americans gain the skills to find good jobs in our new economy."

To boost his standing on domestic issues, the president announced in the weeks leading up to the speech a number of domestic proposals he talked about tonight. On January 7 he asked Congress to grant temporary legal status to the millions of undocumented workers in the United States. A week ago, he called for establishing a long-term presence on the moon to serve as a launching platform for manned missions to Mars and beyond.

Like all presidents, Bush outlined a variety of domestic programs targeted at various constituencies. Among the domestic programs mentioned in the address:

* Reviving a proposal to allow younger workers to invest some of their Social Security taxes in the stock market.

* Making permanent already-enacted tax cuts and eliminating inheritance taxes.

* Providing tax incentives to make high-deductible, low-premium health insurance policies more attractive.

* Limiting medical malpractice awards.

Proposing new programs is relatively easy. Getting them through Congress in an election year, when partisan differences are especially pronounced, will be challenging.

Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson (D), who has voted with the president on earlier tax cuts, said "there is not much support for making tax cuts permanent except on a partisan basis. It is gong to be a very difficult year."

Rep. Pelosi said last week that the war in Iraq has been marked by "confusion and uncertainty" over how to make a transition to a stable government. Sen. Daschle said that on the domestic front, "the president's policies have not worked as advertised" for most citizens.

Budget concerns are also likely to act as a brake on new programs. The normally supportive editorial page of The Wall Street Journal this morning referred to the Bush presidency as "the most profligate Administration since the 1960's."

The Journal noted that not all of the spending increase is war related. "At 18.6 percent, the increase in non-defense discretionary spending under the 107th Congress (2002-2003) is far and away the biggest in decades."

With a federal budget deficit expected to be in the $500 billion zone for the budget the president will send to Congress in a couple weeks, finances will make the adoption of new programs difficult even though the president's party controls both houses of Congress.

The President and Mrs. Bush made the six-minute trip up Independence Avenue amid tight security. Traffic was stopped at every intersection so their 20-vehicle motorcade could speed to the Capitol.

Every year, security for the event seems to grow tighter and more sophisticated. This year there were two decontamination tents nestled in a congressional parking lot. Men wearing 'hazmat' suits and oxygen tanks were standing by lest something go wrong. Nothing did.

(Correspondent Gail Chaddock contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press and Reuters was used to prepare this story.)

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