Campaign 2004 officially under way, President Bush will use his State of the Union address Tuesday night to call for modest expansions in health care and job-training programs, while urging Americans to stand behind him in the war on terrorism.
Mr. Bush will take advantage of high-visibility speech to the nation to highlight his election-year agenda, a day after Democrats formally kicked off their presidential nomination selection process in the Iowa caucuses.
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The White House says there's nothing political about the timing of the speech, reports CBS News White House Correspondent Bill Plante.
But Tuesday marks the earliest Mr. Bush has delivered the annual address; his previous State of the Union speeches were delivered on Jan. 28, 2003 and Jan. 29, 2002. However, President Clinton in 1999 also gave his speech on Jan. 20, and in 2000, Mr. Clinton delivered the address only three days after the Iowa caucus.
In the nationally televised address at the U.S. Capitol, Mr. Bush will open with remarks on national security, then move into domestic priorities, contrary to past practice, aides said. He will urge Americans to back him on combating terrorism, arguing that the path he has chosen, including invading Iraq, is the right one.
The president changed the order of his speech, ending it with a long section on domestic concerns, at a time when Americans' priorities are shifting to domestic issues.
One new Bush initiative will be increased job retraining — through grants to community colleges — in an economy that has seen the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in manufacturing over the past few years.
White House communications director Dan Bartlett said Tuesday that Mr. Bush understands the challenges of a changing economy and will propose the job retraining program to help workers adapt to it.
"We're a nation fighting a war. We're a nation coming out of recession looking to create more jobs. We're tackling the high cost of healthcare. So what President Bush is going to do is focus his speech on the priorities of the American people," Bartlett told Plante.
A year ago, Mr. Bush was preparing the nation for the Iraq war, which would come less than two months after his address to Congress. This year Mr. Bush is eager to maintain public support for postwar operations in Iraq, where the death toll for American troops passed 500 this week.
Democrats, gearing up for an election-year battle, began criticizing elements of Mr. Bush's speech last week. They also sought to remind voters of missteps in Mr. Bush's previous State of the Union addresses.
On Jan. 28, 2003, Mr. Bush uttered the now-infamous "16 words" about Iraq: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." His administration later disavowed the line.
"The president used last year's speech to lay out the case for war, making grave claims about the imminent threat of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, Saddam's pursuit of nuclear material and his links to al Qaeda," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. "I hope the president triple-checks his facts in this year's speech, because last year's State of the Union was riddled with misstatements and untruths."
The second half of Mr. Bush's speech will focus on domestic priorities, with a special emphasis on the economy, which has rebounded strongly since the president declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq in May. Mr. Bush will seek to convince Americans that his series of tax cuts has turned the economy around, and that he is now turning his attention to job creation, aides said.
Mr. Bush's job approval rating, 58 percent in the ABC-Washington Post poll taken Sunday, is higher than for any president at this point in his term since President Eisenhower in 1956. But Mr. Bush's poll numbers are dragged down by concerns over domestic issues, such as health care, immigration and the economy.
Mr. Bush already has announced two large-scale proposals this month, rather than saving them for Tuesday's speech. On Jan. 7, he asked Congress to grant legal status to millions of undocumented workers in the United States. A week later, he said he wanted to establish a long-term presence on the moon to serve as a springboard to manned missions to Mars and beyond.
Mr. Bush also will propose steps to rein in the rising costs of health care. But administration officials said they did not foresee a sweeping new proposal to bring more Americans onto the rolls of the insured.
Mr. Bush will call for new job-training grants channeled through community colleges to help prepare American workers for a changing economy.
Democrats said they were determined to make sure the president does not get too much credit; he has cut vocational education and an array of job-training programs in recent years, they said.
The partisan atmosphere of the campaign year may diminish the chances of major action on Mr. Bush's initiatives, some of which have languished for years.
But the administration hopes that last year's approval of major changes in Medicare and the addition of a prescription drug benefit will clear the way for action on Mr. Bush's proposal to partially privatize Social Security, another item he will address Tuesday.
The White House is orchestrating an aggressive campaign to reinforce Bush's message.
The president travels to Ohio, Arizona and New Mexico on Wednesday and Thursday, and while he is gone, the White House hosts radio-talk show hosts — many of them conservatives whom the administration sees as effective messengers for Mr. Bush.
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