Bush Aims to Ease Worries And Burnish Legacy


By: Wall Street Journal

Progress on Stimulus And Iraq Highlighted; Some Modest Plans
By JOHN D. MCKINNON

WASHINGTON — President Bush’s final State of the Union address aimed to reassure Americans who have grown increasingly anxious about a weakened economy and the global terrorist threat — as well as about his widely criticized leadership.

The president highlighted the progress he is seeing in many of the trouble spots of his sometimes-rocky tenure, from Iraq to the U.S. housing market to hurricane-stricken New Orleans. He also touted a range of modest bipartisan agreements that his lame-duck administration is offering to strike with the Democratic-controlled Congress, in such areas as education and trade.

“From expanding opportunity to protecting our country, we have made good progress,” Mr. Bush said. “Yet we have unfinished business before us, and the American people expect us to get it done.”

Mr. Bush approached the address as an opportunity to begin rehabilitating his legacy as he faces his final year in office. For much of his second term, his approval ratings have been low, due largely to the Iraq conflict. Many Americans lately have begun to look beyond his tenure.

In last night’s address, the president struck an optimistic and mostly non-confrontational tone — unlike some past speeches that have dwelled on the threat of Islamist terrorism, or partisan ideological divides. The White House filled the first lady’s box with guests who exemplified progress: military personnel whose units have returned home from Iraq without being replaced; a homemaker who got help with her distressed family’s mortgage through a government-brokered program; the city administrator of Greensburg, Kan., a place that was leveled by a tornado last year but is now on the way back; a Tanzanian woman who has been helped by an administration AIDS initiative.

With a big election looming, the president also emphasized familiar conservative themes of small government, free markets and choice that have been handed down through recent Republican administrations, from Ronald Reagan’s through his own.

“In the work ahead, we must be guided by the philosophy that made our nation great,” Mr. Bush said. “As Americans, we believe in the power of individuals to determine their destiny and shape the course of history….So in all we do, we must trust in the ability of free people to make wise decisions, and empower them to improve their lives and their futures.”

The Democrats’ formal response sought to depict Mr. Bush as insensitive to Americans’ economic plight, calling a big stimulus bill under discussion in Congress “only a first step.” “Our struggling economy requires urgent and immediate action and then sustained attention,” Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said. She proclaimed a “new American majority” that rejects divisive politics and narrow self-interest, and seeks to “focus not only on individual good but the common good.”

In their own response, the Democratic congressional leaders, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, applauded Mr. Bush’s commitment to bipartisanship, but questioned how far he will actually reach out to Democrats on big issues like the economy and Iraq.

On the economy, Mr. Bush acknowledged that “we can all see that growth is slowing.” He emphasized the benefits of a recent fiscal-stimulus deal with lawmakers to help fight off recession, terming it “a good agreement that will keep our economy growing,” and he warned of the risks from further delay in the Senate.

“The temptation will be to load up the bill” with new ideas, Mr. Bush said. “That would delay it or derail it, and neither option is acceptable.”

He indulged in a bit of bravado in recounting the progress in Iraq. “While the enemy is still dangerous…the American and Iraqi surges have achieved results few of us could have imagined just one year ago,” he said. “Some may deny the surge is working, but among the terrorists there is no doubt. Al Qaeda is on the run in Iraq, and this enemy will be defeated.”
In his final State of the Union address, President George W. Bush urged Congress to pass his economic stimulus plan and warned he’d kill so-called ‘earmarking’ loading down legislation.

As for the future of U.S. involvement in Iraq, Mr. Bush said “our objective in the coming year is to sustain and build on the gains we made in 2007, while transitioning to the next phase of our strategy…a protective overwatch mission.”

He held out hopes for meaningful advances in establishing a Palestinian state — a crucial step in resolving the overall Israeli-Palestinian conflict and easing tensions in the Middle East. And he highlighted the little-heralded work his administration has done in fighting AIDS and malaria in poor countries, pushing a big increase in AIDS-relief funding, while he also proposed a plan to provide food assistance by purchasing crops from farmers in the developing world.

In his dealings with the Democratic-run Congress, Mr. Bush rolled out a limited number of proposals. Several were designed to address middle-class Americans’ pocketbook worries, while others displayed flashes of Mr. Bush’s compassion agenda. They included a new “Pell grant for kids” that would help with tuition at private and parochial schools for poor children, as well as a range of new benefits for military families.

To appease fiscal conservatives, he announced several measures to curb congressional pork-barrel spending. He also repeated his plea to make his first-term tax cuts permanent.

The address recycled a number of familiar policy ideas, including using tax breaks and other market-based solutions to make health care more accessible and affordable; reauthorizing and strengthening his school-accountability initiative, No Child Left Behind; ratifying trade deals with several allies, including Colombia; overhauling several housing programs and enterprises, including the Federal Housing Administration, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; expanding scientific research and education; and ensuring that faith-based organizations can continue to participate on an equal footing in many federal programs.

The president also cited progress even in some divisive areas — notably immigration — where the White House and Congress have failed to produce comprehensive solutions. Instead of pressuring Congress to make yet another push, however, Mr. Bush emphasized the progress the administration has made in strengthening borders and stepping up enforcement.

Mr. Bush also left it up to Congress to come up with bipartisan solutions on overhauling entitlements such as Social Security — another area where he has run into a brick wall on Capitol Hill.

On climate change — another difficult issue — he called for “an international agreement that has the potential to slow, stop, and eventually reverse the growth of greenhouse gases,” but he again emphasized the need for all major economies to participate, and he stressed the importance of clean-energy technologies, calling for a new fund to help developing countries.

Mr. Bush also announced that New Orleans, the site of one of his administration’s greatest failures in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, would be the location of a summit of North American leaders later this year.

Write to John D. McKinnon at john.mckinnon@wsj.com

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