WASHINGTON - Maryland lawmakers praised President Bush last night for recognizing that even a popular wartime president needs to pay close attention to domestic issues.
"This is Chapter Two" in the saga that began with Bush's address to Congress shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican. "This is where he talked about where we go from here. ... He learned the lesson well from his father that he can't afford to create the appearance that he is ignoring everything but the war."
The first President Bush lost his re-election bid in 1992 despite soaring poll ratings at the end of the Persian Gulf war the previous year; many voters viewed him as insensitive to the recession that afflicted the nation.
Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican, said the rallying quality of Bush's speech played into a mood in the chamber that was "one of relief, one of reverence at times, but also there was a sense of mission, a sense of joy and sense of optimism to move forward with our responsibilities."
"I liked the idea of a culture of responsibility, and dignity and respect for all human life," Gilchrest said.
Democrats applauded the president's resolve in the campaign against terrorism. But they complained that his policy prescriptions for the ailing economy were misdirected, particularly his plans to pursue additional tax cuts when the budget he transmits to Congress on Monday is expected to show a hefty deficit.
"I don't think it makes sense to move ahead with big tax cuts at a time when we need to solve problems with Social Security and put more money into education," said Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Prince George's County Democrat. "The chickens have come home to roost - the money's just not there."
Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, complained that Bush failed to explain how he would pay for the war on terrorism, increase homeland security and fund a raft of domestic programs if he also cuts taxes.
"I don't know how you square that without having an enormous deficit, which he doesn't seem to anticipate," Sarbanes said.
Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, praised Bush's call for pension reform in the wake of the Enron collapse. Cardin, who is sponsoring a pension reform proposal with close Bush ally Ohio Rep. Rob Portman, predicted that the president and the lawmakers are likely to find bipartisan agreement on the issue.
But others faulted Bush for failing to mention the Enron debacle.
"While the spirit of patriotism and unity that emerged after Sept. 11 has made the country stronger, when we talk about the state of the union, there is a very dark shadow being cast over corporate America right now," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat. "We need to fight those things that are destroying the American dream - companies that are abdicating their responsibilities to their employees and abusing their trust."
Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican, said he thought Bush struck just the right note.
"He understands the pulse of the people," Bartlett said. "The polls all show the top issues that people care about are the war, the economy and education. He focused on all three."
The Maryland lawmakers said Bush seemed to have grown more comfortable with his presidency.
"The speech confirmed the feeling that he is leading with knowledge and authority," said Rep. Constance A. Morella, a Montgomery County Republican. "The public can see and feel that he is a commander in chief."
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat, said he was intrigued by Bush's proposed USA Freedom Corps, a volunteer service organization that would combine the U.S.-focused AmeriCorps and the overseas-focused Peace Corps.
"But I kind of rolled my eyes," Hoyer said - for several years, Bush's allies in the Republican Congress tried to kill AmeriCorps because it was a pet program of then Democratic President Bill Clinton.