Bush Delivers Muscular Message ; President Defends Aggressive Tactics Overseas, Stands by Domestic Policy Initiatives

Article excerpt

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. …