Bush recasts his major goals

His annual speech affirmed key aims abroad, but warned of oil 'addiction.'

Proposals for manned flights to the moon and Mars were not to be found in this year's State of the Union address. Instead, President Bush laid out an agenda that was grounded firmly on Earth, as he warned against isolationism, urged Americans to stay the course in Iraq, and called for expanded research into alternative energy sources.

The theme of American economic competitiveness also moved to the fore. The president framed much of his domestic agenda in terms of "keeping America competitive," a phrase he repeated seven times as he laid out goals for immigration, trade, healthcare, energy, scientific research, and education.

But first and foremost, Mr. Bush's speech was about the central projects of his presidency - the Iraq war and the larger war on terror - and about trying to shore up public support.

"America rejects the false comfort of isolationism," Bush said. "We are the nation that saved liberty in Europe, and liberated death camps, and helped raise up democracies, and faced down an evil empire. Once again, we accept the call of history to deliver the oppressed and move this world toward peace."

Since his last State of the Union address, delivered on the heels of his reelection and second inauguration, Bush experienced the worst year of his presidency - highlighted by his unsuccessful campaign to reform Social Security and a perceived slow response to hurricane Katrina. His job approval rating, above 50 percent a year ago, is now in the low 40s. The Iraq war is increasingly unpopular. Only his handling of domestic security remains a positive with the public.

"He's humbled," says Del Ali, an independent pollster.

The president took the rostrum in the House of Representatives in a more conciliatory fashion than in previous years, calling for "a civil tone" and "bipartisan solutions" on the looming fiscal crisis as baby boomers head toward retirement.

"To confront the great issues before us, we must act in a spirit of goodwill and respect for one another - and I will do my part," Bush said at the outset.

The behavior of members in the chamber, however, did not bode well for a return to comity in national politics. When Bush mentioned that Congress did not act last year on his Social Security proposal, Democrats stood and applauded in a sort of mock standing ovation. Republicans answered in kind when the president finished his sentence: "... yet the rising cost of entitlements is a problem that is not going away."

Bush then called for a bipartisan commission to examine the impact of baby boom retirements on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. "We need to put aside partisan politics and work together and get this problem solved," he said, earning a standing ovation from both sides.

Missing from this year's speech was the kind of sharp "good versus evil" rhetoric that had marked past State of the Union speeches. In his treatment of Iran, whose nuclear program is a cause of growing alarm, he did not draw bright lines. Instead, he highlighted a multilateral approach. "The nations of the world must not permit the Iranian regime to gain nuclear weapons," Bush said. "America will continue to rally the world to confront these threats."

In the weeks leading up to the address, administration officials had indicated that the rising cost of healthcare would be a top domestic priority for this year. But Bush's speech did not devote much more than two paragraphs to the topic. As promised, he announced his intention to strengthen health savings accounts, a tax-free vehicle that makes it easier for individuals and small businesses to buy health insurance. The administration has proposed raising the annual contribution limit to such accounts and a plan to make such accounts portable to workers who change jobs.

To some analysts, it was Bush's energy proposals that were most deserving of headline treatment, at least on his domestic agenda. He asserted that America must break its "addiction" to oil.

"It was pretty clear from his speech, he recognizes the urgency: We've had it with dependency on foreign oil," says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "It affects everything, both international and domestic policy. Most Americans would say that's what's on their minds."

Of course, American presidents have called for decades to reduce dependence on foreign oil, even as such imports have risen to record levels. And, critics note, the president's call for the nation to "move beyond a petroleum-based economy" belies the fact that the energy bill he signed last summer provided tax breaks for producers of oil and gas drilling.

One of Bush's few moments of specificity centered on support for research into new ways to power cars. He spoke of the need for more research into "better batteries for hybrid and electric cars, and in pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen." He also supported research into new ways of producing ethanol, "not just from corn, but from wood chips and stalks, or switch grass."

In all, the speech seemed to demonstrate a president who has grown averse to risk as he heads into crucial midterm congressional elections. Any big, bold initiatives for a president low on political capital could prove devastating in November, analysts say. Republican control of both houses of Congress is tenuous.

"He's up against it," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. "The immediate priority is to keep either house from turning to the other side."

The Democrats, for their part, put forth the newly elected governor of Virginia, Tim Kaine, to deliver the party response. He criticized the administration for what he called "poor choices and bad management," including the White House's persistence in cutting taxes at a time of war and growing deficits.

After the speech, members of Congress expressed a mixture of hope and exasperation. Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, offered this critique: "He spent seven pages setting up a straw man of isolationism and protectionism.... He didn't say how he was going to pay for Iraq or energy or entitlement reform."

Rep. Tom Cole (R) of Oklahoma gave advice to Democrats: "You don't beat ideas with no ideas. The president is willing to put his ideas out there. Democrats have failed to do that. They are using corruption to make up for the ideas they know can't win with the electorate," he said, referring to the Democrats' effort to portray the Republican Party as rife with corruption.

Sen. John Sununu (R) of New Hampshire, one of four GOP holdouts on the renewal of expiring provisions of the USA Patriot Act, expressed hope for bipartisanship. He and other senators have been working on language with the White House.

"This is a great opportunity to find common ground," he said. "It's important that we demonstrate a willingness to help fight terrorism, but do everything to put in place protections to maintain our civil liberties, which are core principles for protecting homeland security."

Staff writer Gail Russell Chaddock contributed to this report from Washington.

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