Lame duck? Who's a lame duck? George W. Bush may have fewer than 12 months left in office, but on Jan. 28 that did not stop him from delivering a combative State of the Union speech that was perhaps short on soaring rhetoric but long on challenges to Congress to act.
The address was "noteworthy for not being particularly noteworthy," judged Charles Kupchan, senior fellow for European studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. While Mr. Kupchan was talking about foreign affairs in particular, that judgment might extend to the domestic portions of the speech as well.
At least that's what the president's Democratic opponents claim. Mr. Bush made no expansionary proposals, and few new proposals at all, said some lawmakers.
Bush began the address – his final State of the Union – with a nod to bipartisanship, calling on Republicans and Democrats to show the nation that they "can compete for votes and cooperate for results at the same time."
Then he mentioned the economic stimulus deal his administration recently struck with House Democrats. But rather than hold out this deal as an example of Washington doing good work, he warned lawmakers against loading the legislation with extra provisions – something that, to be fair, Congress has been known to do.
"That would delay [the stimulus bill] or derail it, and neither option is acceptable.... Congress must pass it as soon as possible," said Bush.
And so it went. Bush marched through a list of domestic items and told lawmakers in no uncertain terms what they should do with each. Earmarked pet projects in spending bills should be cut in half, he said, or the bills in question would be vetoed. On healthcare, Congress should pick up on his previous call to establish a health insurance tax deduction for individuals. On medical research, Congress should ban the cloning of human life. Federal support for critical basic research in the physical sciences should be doubled, Bush said.
Bush pushed for congressional renewal of his No Child Left Behind education act and of the law governing warrantless wiretaps, which expires Feb. 1. The wiretap law is essential to help track terrorists, said Bush, pivoting neatly into a push for that bill to include liability protection for telecommunications firms that cooperated with National Security Agency eavesdropping efforts in the past.
"If you do not act by Friday, our ability to track terrorist threats would be weakened and our citizens will be in greater danger," Bush told the assembled members of the House and Senate.
Overall, Bush had quite a to-do list for lawmakers, especially for an election year. Most will want to be out of Washington and on the campaign trail by August.
"I would say between tonight and somewhere in the Fourth-of-July/August-recess time frame, we'll have some opportunities to get some things done," said Counselor to the President Ed Gillespie at a Jan. 28 briefing for reporters.
Yet many of Bush's proposals are things Congress has previously rejected or declined to take up.
In foreign policy, presidents are freer to act on their own, and thus the half of the speech devoted to international affairs was less Congress-centric and sounded more like a chief executive presenting his legacy to history.
High-profile terrorist attacks are down, civilian deaths are down, and sectarian killings are down, said Bush. He hailed the spread of cooperation with Sunni tribal leaders tired of Al Qaeda's brutality. As he has so often, Bush called the US fight against Islamist extremism as "the defining ideological struggle of the 21st century."
Other world references were short and generally restated administration policies. Bush's reference to the Israeli-Palestinian Middle East peace process, for instance, was barely a paragraph, despite the administration's recent increased involvement in the issue.
• Gail Russell Chaddock contributed to this report.