President George W. Bush denounced earmark spending and emphasized progress in Iraq during the State of the Union address, his final opportunity to set an agenda as the American political scene becomes increasingly focused on the competition to succeed him.
Much of the media coverage and interest of the attendees Monday focused on Sens. Barack Obama, D-Ill., Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and John McCain, R-Ariz., frontrunners for their party's nomination this year. The increasingly frosty relationship between Democratic rivals Clinton and Obama was underscored by what appeared to be attempts to avoid handshakes or other such pleasantries.
Though attention was focused on the presidential hopefuls, Bush fought the implication of his increasingly lame duck status by what appeared to be playing political defense. He warned the Democratic-controlled Congress that he would veto bills emphasizing any attempts to raise taxes.
The president also threatened Congress with automatic vetoes bills in which earmarks - elements of a spending bill that allocate money to a Congressman's pet project -- were not cut. He pledged an executive order forcing federal departments to ignore earmarks not voted on by Congress.
In Iraq, Bush heralded the results of last year's troop surge, arguing that "while the enemy is still dangerous and more work remains, the American and Iraqi surges have achieved results few of us could have imagined."
"From expanding opportunity to protecting our country, we have made good progress," Bush said. "Yet we have unfinished business before us, and the American people expect us to get it done."
On the economy, which was catapulted to the forefront of debates after substantial market losses in recent weeks, he argued that Congress should consider a series of free trade agreements and highlighted his bipartisan tax relief effort approved last week.
"This is a good agreement that will keep our economy growing and our people working," Bush said.
Bush also asked for a series of new education programs for low-income grade school students, including a $300 million initiative mirroring Pell Grants for college students.
"We must work together to increase accountability, add flexibility for states and districts, reduce the number of high school dropouts, and provide extra help for struggling schools," Bush said.
The president urged Congress to double funding for physical science research and reiterated his support for cleaner and more efficient fuel economy. Budgets at national and university research laboratories were slashed by 12 percent resulted in large layoffs and the delay or cancellation of a number of ongoing and upcoming experiments and studies.
"To keep America competitive into the future, we must trust in the skill of our scientists and engineers and empower them to pursue the breakthroughs of tomorrow," Bush said. "This funding is essential to keeping our scientific edge."
On national security, the president focused on successes in Iraq and Afghanistan, underscoring that "high profile terrorist attacks are down, civilian deaths are down, and sectarian killings are down." The president said more than 20,000 of the surge troops will return home, and that the further reduction of troops will be based on ground conditions and the recommendations of the military commander.
"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," Bush said. "American troops are shifting from leading operations, to partnering with Iraqi forces, and, eventually, to a protective over watch mission."
The president also argued for a number of social programs and foreign policy stances that ar likely to receive support on both sides of the aisle, from opposing genocide in Sudan to increased AIDS relief and third-world agriculture support.
In the Democratic response, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius stressed the importance of such bipartisanship, a theme adopted by many congressional Democrats frustrated by Republican efforts to thwart their initiatives upon regaining control of the legislature. Sebelius urged the two parties to come together on issues of national security, health care, raising the minimum wage, and reducing the costs of college loans, arguing that in a time of war and economic regression, "it's time to get to work."
"The new Democratic majority of Congress and the vast majority of Americans are ready - ready to chart a new course," Sebelius said. "If more Republicans in Congress stand with us this year, we won't have to wait for a new President to restore America's role in the world."
© 2008 Chicago Maroon via U-WIRE