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Speech closes the circle

The Baltimore Sun

The invisible man stepped back into the spotlight last night, if only for an hour.

President Bush had been fading from view for months. In this campaign season, Americans seem far more interested in who will be their next president than they are in the current one.

The speech in Washington yesterday that generated the most electricity wasn't Bush's final State of the Union. It was Teddy Kennedy endorsing Barack Obama.

So, it might have been at least a mild shock to viewers to see Bush on TV and realize that he still has a year left in his term. Bush's biggest challenge might simply have been to make a compelling case, as another beleaguered president once put it, that he's still relevant.

Members of Congress didn't help him all that much. Their response to his words, at least in the early going, seemed more muted than usual, as if more than a few in both parties would rather have been somewhere else.

The man who is currently leading the Republican presidential race, John McCain, actually was. He stayed in Florida, where he faces a tough challenge in today's primary. The main Democratic candidates, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Obama, were on hand, though.

Bush adviser Ed Gillespie told reporters that the address would not be "a retrospective speech in any way, shape or form."

But it was impossible not to view the speech in the larger context of his presidency, as Bush sprinkled it with phrases dating from the earliest days of his political career. He began by reminding the Congress that the oath of office they all have taken, to carry out the people's business, is "our charge to keep."

The reference was to a hymn that Bush had sung at his gubernatorial inauguration in Texas and later used as the title of a campaign autobiography. It refers, Bush has said, to the admonition "that we serve One greater than ourselves."

Bush's "armies of compassion" marched in his remarks, and he vowed, once more, to "deliver justice to our enemies."

Seven Januarys ago, the Texan came to Washington promising a changed tone and a new spirit of cooperation. It didn't work out that way.

Except for a brief period of unity after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, deep division has been one of the defining characteristics of the Bush era. Bush made a wry allusion to that polarization, remarking that big issues "call for vigorous debate, and I think it's fair to say we've answered that call."

Those in the hall greeted that line with silence. Either they didn't get it or were in no mood to laugh at themselves, or with Bush.

He hailed his recent deal with House Democrats on an economic stimulus package that was a rare exception to the trend of paralyzing partisanship. He also called on the two parties to "compete for votes and cooperate for results at the same time."

Bush understandably wants to leave office on a high note and be remembered as the man he came to power promising to be. He redrew his agenda of compassionate conservatism on a global scale, calling for the purchase of locally produced agricultural products overseas with American aid money and more U.S. spending to fight HIV/AIDS abroad, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.

Domestically, his legacy includes the tax cuts of 2001, an education law that he's having trouble getting renewed and a period of extended economic growth that slowed as his administration entered its final year. The disappointments include the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina and failure to deal with problems of illegal immigration and the cost of the retirement of his own generation.

Fiscal conservatives have long argued that Bush could have prevented the earmark explosion by vetoing wasteful spending measures. His reluctance became a pattern set in 2002, when he signed the most expensive farm legislation in history, which critics said was bloated with excessive spending.

Last night, he acknowledged that Congress had ignored him a year ago when he asked that the number of earmarks be cut in half. "So this time," Bush said, "if you send me an appropriations bill that does not cut the number and cost of earmarks in half, I will send it back to you with my veto."

Republican legislators gamely rose to briefly applaud that line. Democrats did not, and Bush didn't explain why he hadn't taken similar action earlier.

In spite of his recent focus on the nation's slowing economy, Bush regards himself as a wartime president, and history will likely judge him, ultimately, on the wisdom of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime.

He spoke at length about the military progress made under the troop escalation he ordered a year ago, praising U.S. forces for containing violence that "many said [would be] impossible" and defying those who "deny the surge is working."

When he noted that the surge had allowed 20,000 troops to come home, some Democrats could be heard shouting "more" over applause triggered by Republicans.

Last night, he warned Congress not to push for a speedier withdrawal of U.S. forces that could undercut gains in Iraq.

"Having come so far and achieved so much," he said, "we must not allow this to happen."


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