In his final State of the Union address as president, Bush put a major focus on the troubled economy, speaking to the concerns “at kitchen tables across our country.”
But the administration is careful to describe the $150 billion stimulus bill as a “growth,” not “recovery,” initiative, and all the rhetoric seems designed to preserve a confident image going into the November elections.
“As we meet tonight, our economy is undergoing a period of uncertainty,” the president . “And at kitchen tables across our country, there is concern about our economic future. In the long run, Americans can be confident about our economic growth”
Mindful of the narrow legislative window this year, Bush outlined a limited domestic initiative, but in the area of education, he championed several new ideas targeted to inner-city children and military families.
At the same time, he renewed an old fight over spending priorities by proposing close to $18 billion in domestic program reductions as well as threatening to veto any appropriations bill that doesn’t reduce so-called earmarks by 50 percent from 2008 levels, already cut by Democrats from prior Republican Congresses.
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The new benchmark is less severe than House Republican demands for a moratorium this year on any such projects, but Bush’s stand still contrasts sharply with his history of long tolerating pork barrel spending, which exploded under Republican rule.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi didn’t dismiss the demands for further reductions from earmarks but suggested the administration and Republicans were not being consistent in their position.
“If the president wants to do away with earmarks, then we should do away with presidential earmarks as well,” she said before the speech. “There is great ambiguity in the Republican Party. They want to beat a loud drum, but when it comes down to it, they want their earmarks.”
Democrats have faulted the president for not fulfilling early expectations of more federal funding to accompany the president’s legacy, the No Child Left Behind law enacted in his first term.
But the president argued that improved reading scores testify to the effectiveness of the reforms, and the speech showed his eagerness to still be seen as an “education president.”
“On education, we must trust students to learn, if given the chance, and empower parents to demand results from our schools.” Bush said..
“Members of Congress: The No Child Left Behind Act is a bipartisan achievement. It is succeeding. And we owe it to America’s children, their parents and their teachers to strengthen this good law.”
The speech was not good news for proponents of a major farm bill in Congress, which relies on some new revenues to meet budget targets. Bush said flatly that he would veto any tax increase for any purpose, and the president also backed proposals to rely less on American producers to generate food aid overseas and instead purchase “crops directly from farmers in the developing world, so we can build up local agriculture and help break the cycle of famine.”
In the Democratic response, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius urged bipartisanship, though she gave no specifics. "There is a chance, Mr. President, in the next 357 days, to get real results and give the American people renewed optimism that their challenges are the top priority," Sebelius said in remarks prepared for delvery.
Among the new ideas in Bush's speech was a proposed $300 million Pell Grants for Kids scholarship program that appears designed to boost enrollment at parochial schools in urban neighborhoods.
In the case of military families, Bush proposed changes in law to make it easier for unused education benefits — earned by a soldier — to be transferred to his or her spouse or children.
The Army currently permits this in the case of children, and the president would broaden the practice to apply to all branches of the military and spouses as well.
As the clock ticks down on his presidency, the speech also reflected that Bush will use executive orders to back up his agenda.
His crackdown on earmarks, for example, will be accompanied by an order this week telling agencies to ignore future projects unless the funding is spelled out in specific legislation, not simply tucked into an accompanying bill report.
That order, expected to be issued as early as Tuesday, could be removed by a future administration but will be effective until then.
Controversies from years past also figured in the speech. Bush planned to announce that the next meeting of the leaders of Mexico, Canada and the United States will be held in New Orleans, in an effort to highlight the city’s continuing recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
The core Bush agenda items were still evident in the president’s remarks, which were evenly devoted to foreign and domestic policy.
The administration has a pending request for $108 billion more for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the larger war against terror. And faced with a Feb. 1 deadline, Bush also was to demand a quick end to debate on legislation authorizing warrantless eavesdropping to fight terrorism.
Bush won loud applause with a defense of his surge policy in Iraq. "Ladies and gentlemen, some may deny the surge is working, but among the terrorists there is no doubt. Al Qaida is on the run in Iraq, and this enemy will be defeated," he said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s trip to Colombia last week was the backdrop for Bush to press again for ratification of a trade agreement reached with the U.S. ally in 2006.
While also supportive of pending agreements with such larger economic powers as South Korea, Bush made clear that the Colombia agreement would take precedence. “The first agreement that will come before you is with Colombia, a friend of America that is confronting violence and terror and fighting drug traffickers. If we fail to pass this agreement, we will embolden the purveyors of false populism in our hemisphere,” Bush said.
Mideast peace efforts and the crisis in Darfur also were topics, and Bush renewed his call for more money to fight not only AIDS but also malaria in poor developing nations.
At home, Bush stressed that he wants to make his signature tax cuts permanent — something left out of the $150 billion stimulus package agreed to last week by House leaders.
But the White House is making a conscious effort not to overreach, given that, more than most, this State of the Union address came against the background of changing dynamics.
The president spoke fervently of his trust in Americans, even as he asked voters to trust him with more surveillance authority — now being debated in the Senate — and billions more in funding for the war in Iraq.
But the downturn in the economy has shaken what has been a pillar to his power, and Bush knows he will have to share the stage more this year even as he tries to hold onto a piece for himself.
Nothing illustrates this better than the new $150 billion economic stimulus package, a major subject Monday night but one not even in early drafts of the speech a month ago.
The president singled out Pelosi and House Republican Leader John A. Boehner for their work in shaping the bill, which come before the full House on Tuesday.
"My administration reached agreement with Speaker Pelosi and Republican Leader Boehner on a robust growth package that includes tax relief for individuals and families and incentives for business investment," Bush said. "The temptation will be to load up the bill. That would delay it or derail it, and neither option is acceptable. This is a good agreement that will keep our economy growing and our people working. And this Congress must pass it as soon as possible."
The re-emergence of Boehner as a legislative dealmaker could be hugely important if Congress were to go on and tackle a megabargain this year: pairing the president’s legacy education issue — No Child Left Behind — with expanded health insurance for working-class children, a top Pelosi priority.
At the same time, it is difficult to overstate the impact of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson in the stimulus talks.
Republicans call him an “Energizer bunny”; Democrats are relieved to have someone who listens.
“I was going to call you, but I was working my way up,” Paulson told Pelosi when she telephoned him early on. “He’s not there to fight us; he’s there to work it out,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.).
Looking ahead, the former investment banker and Goldman Sachs CEO is increasingly optimistic he can break through in the Senate this year and complete mortgage reform legislation, including tighter supervision of government-sponsored entities like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two entrenched Washington interests.
“I don’t want to sound naive, but I think there’s a real chance for action,” the secretary said in a brief interview Sunday. “There’s no excuse, and we’ll be embarrassing ourselves if we don’t do it.”