Bush presents limited agenda for the remainder of his term
With the delivery of his final State of the Union address, Bush presented a starkly limited agenda for the remainder of his term, in contrast to the bold rhetoric and ambitious goals that marked earlier periods in his presidency.
As the nation faces fears of recession, he pressed for immediate and long-term relief for taxpayers. And as American troops gradually withdraw from Iraq, he asked for new surveillance authority in the war on terror.
With a sweeping overview of the world tumult and domestic controversy he has faced in seven years, Bush made only fleeting references to the bold reforms he unsuccessfully sought on immigration and Social Security during his second term. He suggested that now, any action on these fronts will be up to Congress.
For all the challenges remaining, the president, who will be out of office in a year, attempted with smiles and a forceful appeal to convey a cautious optimism in the televised address before a joint session of Congress.
“As we meet tonight, our economy is undergoing a period of uncertainty,” Bush said. “At kitchen tables across our country, there is a concern about our economic future. In the long run, Americans can be confident about our economic growth. But in the short run, we can all see that that growth is slowing.”
Bush urged Congress to swiftly approve a $150 billion economic stimulus package, including tax rebates for individuals and families and tax breaks for business. He recently reached a deal with House leaders on the package, and he urged Senate Democrats not to pile on additional breaks, as they are seeking to do.
“The temptation will be to load up the bill,” Bush said. “That would delay it or derail it, and neither option is acceptable.”
In the midst of a home mortgage crisis, Bush called on Congress to reform government lending. He called for a renewal of his signature first-term education reform, the No Child Left Behind Act, and for congressional approval of foreign trade agreements.
The president also urged Congress to act on an issue demanding prompt attention: the Feb. 1 expiration of legislation authorizing his terrorist surveillance program.
The limited reach of the president’s final to-do list for Congress reflected his own lagging popularity, at a time when an unusually lively campaign to succeed him is overshadowing his remaining tenure.
The president, who averted any vetoes of congressional spending until Democrats gained control of Congress last year, also threatened to veto many of the “earmarks” that members stuff into spending bills for home-district projects. Bush pledged to veto any spending bill that does not cut the number and the cost of earmarks by half.
The White House complains that Congress inserted roughly 11,700 earmarks totaling nearly $17 billion in its 2008 spending bills. On Tuesday, Bush also plans to issue an executive order directing federal agencies to “ignore” hidden earmarks.
But Democrats quickly complained that Bush was “trying to have it both ways,” turning a blind eye to earmarks when Republicans controlled Congress, and also seeking $20 billion for its own projects last year.
In general, Democratic leaders found much missing in this address.
House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said Bush “missed a wonderful opportunity” to explain mistakes at war and with the economy, charting no course for the future.
The president did remind this election-year Congress how much remains to be accomplished, citing issues like immigration reform and the growth in entitlements.
“Every member in this chamber knows that spending on entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is growing faster than we can afford,” Bush said.
“Illegal immigration is complicated, but it can be resolved,” he added. “And it must be resolved in a way that upholds both our laws and our highest ideals.”
Bush asserted that the “surge” of U.S. troops in Iraq is having a dramatic effect, saying it has “achieved results few of us could have imagined just one year ago.”
“Some may deny the surge is working, but among the terrorists there is no doubt,” he said. “Al-Qaida is on the run in Iraq, and this enemy will be defeated.”
Democrats have insisted that while the “surge” has reduced violence, that has not led to the political reconciliation crucial for a stable Iraq.
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As he begins the last year of his presidency, Bush faces a skeptical public.
Public satisfaction with the economy has fallen from 68 percent during Bush’s first year to 36 percent, the Gallup Poll has found.
Bush’s approval ratings, which soared to 90 percent in the weeks following Sept. 11, 2001, have slumped to the low 30s.
The president’s entire family came to this final show before Congress, with his twin daughters joining the first lady for the first time. And one big wish here won applause.
“In this election year, let us show our fellow Americans that we recognize our responsibilities and are determined to meet them,” Bush said. “Let us show them that Republicans and Democrats can compete for votes and cooperate for results at the same time.”