Bush Speech To Focus On War, Taxes

When President Bush delivers his State of the Union address Tuesday, it will be the fourth time he has addressed a joint session of Congress.

Although those speeches have found the country in starkly different moods — from the end of the nineties boom to the shock of Sept. 11 to the midst of the war in Afghanistan — the president is expected Tuesday to return to many of the themes he has dealt with before.

In his first message to Congress, delivered just after his inauguration in 2001, he mentioned economic "warning signs" but noted "a balanced budget, big surpluses, a military that is second to none, a country at peace with its neighbors."

His second appearance came in the wake of the terrorist attacks, when he promised, "whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done."

At this time last year, in the "axis of evil" speech, he accused North Korea of "arming with missiles … while starving its citizens," Iran of exporting terror, and Iraq of efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction.

The message Mr. Bush delivers Tuesday is expected to combine elements of all three previous appearances, while also reflecting how much has changed since he delivered them.

The economic warning signs Mr. Bush alluded to in 2001 have been confirmed in sluggish growth and persistent unemployment. The large surpluses and balanced budget he lauded have been replaced by red ink. The president has proposed a $674 billion plan that he says will refuel growth, at the cost of bloating that deficit.

His plan calls for accelerating some of the tax cuts passed in his 2001 stimulus bill, including the phase-out of the marriage penalty, the reduction of marginal tax rates and the increase in the child tax credit. It also seeks to eliminate the tax on dividends.

The last element is perhaps the most controversial, since lower- and middle-income people are less likely to benefit than the wealthy. The president said exemption dividends from taxes would encourage investment.

Democrats and even some Republicans have voiced skepticism of the idea. A recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll finds only 35 percent of the public approve of the White House proposal. But White House chief of staff Andrew Card said he is confident Congress will approve Mr. Bush's plan.

"There's a sausage machine on Capitol Hill," Card said. "We gave the sausage machine all of the right ingredients, they have to churn, and I'm confident that when they turn that sausage out it'll be the right kind of sausage for America."

But Mr. Bush faces challenges elsewhere as well. More than half — 53 percent — responding to a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press said the president has not yet explained clearly what is at stake to justify war with Iraq.

White House officials have sought to play down expectations that the inspections might turn up hard evidence Iraq maintains stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, a message they brought to the airwaves again Sunday.

"I think the real headline is, no proof that Saddam Hussein is complying with the United Nations in disarming," Card said Sunday in a broadcast interview.

With opposition growing overseas, the president will seek to project unity Friday at Camp David with his staunchest ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Yet Blair faces a challenge persuading his own public of the wisdom of war. Opinion surveys show that support for military action against Iraq is at its lowest level ever among the British public.

In the United States, the public has grown increasingly skeptical about Mr. Bush's handling of the economy, with 44 percent approving of his economic stewardship and 49 percent disapproving in an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll.

Mr. Bush will also use the speech to reiterate his long-standing goal of adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. Under the plan being considered by his administration, the thousands of beneficiaries who participate in traditional Medicare could not get prescription drug coverage unless they enrolled in private plans.

Mr. Bush will fill in some of the details at a speech Wednesday in Michigan, a state critical to his re-election and one that he lost in 2000.

He will also announce new initiatives and federal spending to help the needy, by working through community and religious groups.