WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Laying out an optimistic election-year agenda, President Bush called on the American people and Congress last night as "partners in a great enterprise" to boost job-training and health care reforms at home while expanding freedom abroad.
After three tumultuous years as president marked by a horrific terrorist attack, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, a continuing campaign against terror, and bitter fights with congressional Democrats over taxes and judicial nominees, Bush vowed in his annual State of the Union address to keep pressure on adversaries overseas and to pursue activist, conservative policies at home.
"We can go forward with confidence and resolve or we can turn back to the dangerous illusion that terrorists are not plotting and outlaw regimes are no threat to us," Bush declared as he mounted a forceful justification for the war on Iraq, for preserving tax cuts, and for the need to protect marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
"We can press on with economic growth, and reforms in education and Medicare, or we can turn back to the old policies and old divisions," Bush told a joint session of Congress and a national television audience. The country has not come through the tragedy of Sept. 11 and war "only to falter and leave our work unfinished."
Yet Bush avoided the bold policy thrusts of 2002, when he threatened a dramatic expansion of the war on terror by lumping Iraq, Iran and North Korea together as an "axis of evil," or of 2003, when he built a case for a war in Iraq, drawing in part on what aides later acknowledged was inadequately sourced intelligence.
Bush gave his final State of the Union speech before November's elections on a day when much of the nation's attention was focused on his potential Democratic opponents after Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's come-from-behind victory in Monday night's Iowa caucuses.
Avoiding any mention of the Democrats' primary fight, Bush nevertheless sought to present a contrast with his opponents, appearing as a commander in chief who stands above political battles and attempting to draw into common cause an often sharply divided populace and a Congress split by partisanship.
But Bush's language of unity failed to still election-year criticism from Democrats, both congressional and party leaders and those who want to challenge him in November.
In the official Democratic response, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California criticized Bush's "go-it-alone foreign policy that leaves us isolated abroad and that steals the resources we need for education and health care here at home."
Joining Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said, "Instead of borrowing even more money to give more tax breaks to companies so that they can export even more jobs, we propose tax cuts and policies that will strengthen our manufacturing sector and create good jobs at good wages here at home."
'Nation with a mission'
Bush gave no quarter to opponents of the war in Iraq, despite continued instability there, a failure to find weapons of mass destruction and a death toll among American service men and women that reached 501 yesterday.
He said the world without Saddam Hussein in power "is a far better and safer place," and drew loud applause and cheers when he said the people of Iraq are now free. Had the United States not acted, other dictators would be encouraged in their defiance, the United Nations Security Council would have been undermined and Iraq's killing fields "would still be known only to the killers," Bush said.
"Because of American leadership and resolve, the world is changing for the better," he asserted.
Rejecting the idea that the United States should be hamstrung by the lack of an international consensus, Bush said to strong applause that this country will "never seek a permission slip" to defend itself.
Bush blamed continued violence in Iraq on "thugs" and Hussein supporters who he said ran from U.S. troops in battle and now "attack from the shadows." They are being dealt with, he said, "just as surely as we dealt with Saddam Hussein's evil regime."
In an effort to show progress in transforming Iraq, Bush paused in his speech last night to welcome a guest who symbolizes a moderate, Western-leaning new leadership: Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister and current president of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council.
He glossed over the failure to locate any of the nuclear, chemical or biological weapons that he had cited as the main reason for the invasion, instead stressing the discovery of "dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment."
Bush paid tribute to enlisted personnel from all five branches of the U.S. armed services who took part in the Iraq operation and who were seated last night near first lady Laura Bush.
Joining Mrs. Bush was a Maryland veteran of the Iraq war, Air Force Staff Sgt. Clinton W. Smith Jr. of Upper Marlboro.
Smith, 28, was deployed to Iraq with a security unit in July and returned in September. While in Baghdad, he helped to protect the 447th Air Expeditionary Group.
"Basically he's someone who's being rewarded for his recent deployment," said Capt. Elizabeth Ortiz, a spokeswoman at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, where Smith is assigned to the 11th Security Forces Squadron.
Smith, the father of a 4-year-old son, found out over the weekend that he would attend the speech. He kept saying, "I can't believe it," said his proud mother, Lizzie Smith, who planned to watch the speech on television from her Forestville home.
Bush, who in a recent policy shift encouraged the United Nations to assume a larger role in Iraq's transition, acknowledged that "the work of building a new Iraq is hard," but asserted: "America has always been willing to do what it takes for what is right."
But Bush drew a larger lesson from the war, one that he implied will encourage peaceful progress throughout the Middle East.
"America is a nation with a mission, and that mission comes from our most basic beliefs," he declared, noting what he described as a special calling: "This great republic will lead the cause of freedom."
To hasten an end to Middle East tyranny and the despair and anger it breeds, Bush said a new, U.S.-funded television station would soon transmit "reliable news and information" around the region. He proposed doubling the budget for the National Endowment for Democracy to promote free markets, press and labor unions.
Bush credited American military resolve in persuading Libya's dictator, Col. Muammar el Kadafi, to give up his programs to develop banned weapons, arguing that "no one can now doubt the word of America."
The president repeated his commitment to preventing outlaw regimes from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, but said "different threats require different strategies," and sounded content with relying on diplomacy to remove the nuclear threats posed by North Korea and Iran.
Saying that the United States remains a nation at war, Bush called on Congress to renew key provisions of the Patriot Act that are to expire next year.
"The terrorist threat will not expire on that schedule," he said. Civil liberties groups have campaigned against some provisions of the measure as violations of Americans' basic rights. The president characterized the act as a major weapon in the war on terrorism.
The domestic agenda
Bush's 54-minute speech was interrupted by applause at least 60 times, but observers noted that most of the loud enthusiasm was confined to the Republican side of the aisle.
The divide between the two parties was evident in response to Bush's domestic agenda, particularly during Bush's reprise of initiatives that he has failed to push through Congress.
In what amounted to the opening salvo of his campaign, Bush focused the last half of his address on domestic policy, where opinion polls show that he is most vulnerable, giving greater weight than in the past to voters' domestic concerns about jobs, health care and education than in his two previous State of the Union speeches.
The president reiterated his belief that marriage should be confined to the union of a man and a woman, and expressed a willingness to press for a constitutional amendment banning homosexual marriage.
Challenging lawmakers to make the tax cuts enacted in his first year permanent, Bush brushed aside fears of rising budget deficits, now approaching $500 billion, saying that the country was enjoying the beginning of a period of strong growth that could be choked off by raising taxes.
He proposed extending tax breaks as a way to improve health insurance coverage and revived a proposal to overhaul Social Security that would allow workers to invest some of their payroll taxes in private retirement accounts.
Bush proposed new initiatives to render high school students and graduates better able to compete in a job market requiring new skills, along with a temporary worker program for immigrants, many of whom have crossed the border from Mexico illegally in search of jobs.
"America's growing economy is also a changing economy. As technology transforms the way almost every job is done, America becomes more productive and workers need new skills," Bush said. "We must respond by helping more Americans gain the skills to find good jobs in our new economy."
In addition, he proposed a $23 million pilot program of high school drug testing for schools that want such a program. He coupled this initiative with a denunciation of professional athletes who rely on steroids to enhance performance.
Responding to demands for improved health care, Bush presented a contrast with Democrats who want to expand insurance coverage through government spending. Instead, he proposed tax breaks to encourage the use of high-deductible, low-premium policies; tax-free health savings accounts, and allowing businesses to pool resources to provide insurance coverage. He proposed to allow a 100 percent deduction for insurance to cover catastrophic health care expenses.
In a bid to cut health care costs, Bush again proposed a cap on malpractice awards and called for better use of technology to reduce medical mistakes.
He combined the initiatives with others intended to demonstrate compassion -- such as a four-year, $300 million proposal to facilitate the return of ex-convicts into society -- and to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases by doubling funds for school programs that encourage abstinence.
In an appeal to his political base among religious and cultural conservatives, Bush proposed enshrining in law his "faith-based initiatives" that direct federal grant money to religious charities.
Sun staff writer Scott Calvert contributed to this article.
Renew Patriot Act, continue vigilance against terrorists
More tax relief, job training; overhaul of Social Security
Boost sancity of marriage expand student drug testing
Had we failed to act, the dictator's weapons of mass destruction programs would continue to this day. As long as the Middle East remains a place of tyranny, despair, and anger, it will continue to produce men and movements that threaten the safety of America and our friends. So America is pursuing a forward strategy of freedom in the greater Middle East.
Our greatest responsibility is the active defense of the American people. Twenty-eight months have passed since September 11th, 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.
ON FOREIGN POLICY
There is a difference...between leading a coalition of many nations, and submitting to the objections of a few. America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our people.
ON TAX CUTS
"Productivity is high. And jobs are on the rise. These numbers confirm that the American people are using their money far better than government would have - and you were right to return it.
A government-run health care system is the wrong prescription. By keeping costs under control, expanding access, and helping more Americans afford coverage, we will preserve the system of private medicine that makes America's health care the best in the world.
This Nation will not go back to the days of simply shuffling children along from grade to grade without them learning the basics. I refuse to give up on any child, and the No Child Left Behind Act is opening the door of opportunity to all of America's children.
"On an issue of such great consequence, the people's voice must be heard. If judges insist on forcing their arbitrary will upon the people, the only alternative left to the people would be the constitutional process. Our Nation must defend the sanctity of marriage.
ON FAITH-BASED PROGRAMS
Religious charities of every creed are doing some of the most vital work in our country. Yet government has often denied social service grants and contracts to these groups. I have opened billions of dollars in grant money to competition that includes faith-based charities. Tonight I ask you to codify this into law, so that people of faith can know that the law will never discriminate against them again.