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Analysis: President Bush's State Of The Union Address

Morning Edition: January 29, 2003

State of the Union

BOB EDWARDS, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Bob Edwards.

President Bush used the State of the Union address last night to promote his tax cuts as the tonic for a sluggish economy and his health-care reforms as the way to bring medical costs down. He also proposed an increase in funds to fight AIDS in Africa and for federal subsidies for the development of more fuel-efficient cars. The president covered many topics, but none received as much time as Iraq. The president concluded his hourlong speech with his case for war, calling Saddam Hussein a grave danger to the world. NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA reporting:

The president stood before a joint session of the Congress last night knowing that there are increasing questions and concerns about his leadership, both at home, where there are worries about the economy, and on foreign policy, specifically the growing likelihood of a war to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. A State of the Union address gives a president a chance to state his case, and Mr. Bush did so with an air of assurance.

SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS

President GEORGE W. BUSH: And all these days of promise and days of reckoning, we can be confident in a world of change and hope and peril, our faith is sure, our resolve is firm and our union is strong.

SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE

GONYEA: The first half of the speech dealt with domestic issues, an area where Americans give the president his poorest grades. Polls show that more people disapprove than approve of his handling of the economy, always a key presidential task. President Bush said the economy is recovering but also acknowledged that it's not growing fast enough. He credited tax cuts passed in 2001 with pulling the country out of recession and last night urged Congress to support his recent call for another $674 billion in cuts.

SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS

Pres. BUSH: Jobs are created when the economy grows. The economy grows when Americans have more money to spend and invest. And the best and fairest way to make sure Americans have that money is not to tax it away in the first place.

SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE

GONYEA: The applause for that line came almost entirely from Republicans in the chamber. Democrats charge that the tax cuts the president wants, including the elimination of taxes shareholders pay on corporate dividends, concentrate most of the tax relief on the wealthiest Americans.

From there the president ran through a list of domestic agenda items, calling for Medicare reform that would help the elderly pay for prescription drugs and calling once again for a limit on jury awards on lawsuits against doctors and hospitals. He also proposed money for drug treatment programs. Absent from the president's speech was any mention of civil rights or affirmative action programs, both of which have been hot topics of late due to the controversy over the resignation of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and over lawsuits that challenge the use of race in the admissions policy at the University of Michigan. Mr. Bush has spoken out in support of that challenge to affirmative action.

The president made the transition to foreign affairs by talking not about Iraq but Africa. He surprised AIDS activists by proposing to triple the amount of US money budgeted to fight AIDS on the continent.

SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS

Pres. BUSH: I ask the Congress to commit $15 billion over the next five years, including nearly $10 billion in new money, to turn the tide against AIDS in the most afflicted nations of Africa and the Caribbean.

GONYEA: That proposal seemed designed to make the point that the US is a generous citizen of the world, using its wealth to provide aid of all kinds to those who need it all around the globe. It served as a counterpoint to critics who accused the Bush administration of being a bully, which only looks out for its own interests. The president last night used AIDS and Africa to provide a greater context for his discussion of Iraq.

SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS

Pres. BUSH: This nation can lead the world in sparing innocent people from a plague of nature and this nation is leading the world in confronting and defeating the manmade evil of international terrorism.

SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE

GONYEA: This is what the speech was building to. If people were looking for new information to further explain why the president is so adamant that Saddam Hussein must disarm or face a military attack, he offered little. Mostly he restated the threat he says the Iraqi leader poses. Mr. Bush did call for the UN Security Council to meet one week from today when Secretary of State Colin Powell will share intelligence with them to bolster the US position that Iraq does, indeed, still have illegal weapons programs. The president did list weapons he says Iraq was once known to have but which have not been accounted for, citing tons of biological and chemical weapons and 30,000 more chemical warheads like the dozen found by inspectors two weeks ago.

SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS

Pres. BUSH: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production. Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities. He clearly has much to hide.

GONYEA: And too much, the president maintains, for UN inspectors to be expected to find in a country the size of California. The president also cited, without offering specifics, intelligence showing that Saddam Hussein has aided and protected terrorists, including members of al-Qaeda.

SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS

Pres. BUSH: Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans, this time armed by Saddam Hussein. Take one vial, one canister, one crate, slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known. We will do everything in our power to make sure that that day never comes.

SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE

GONYEA: Answering those who say that Saddam Hussein can be contained, that he doesn't currently pose any threat to the United States, the president said that position depends on, quote, "trusting in the sanctity and restraint of Saddam Hussein." The president said that is not a strategy and not an option. And he clearly wanted to drive home the point that while the US would like UN backing, should he decide war is the only option, that he will do what he believes is necessary. He said sending Americans into battle is difficult, that there will be risks and costs and sorrow, but he added that peace must be defended.

SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS

Pres. BUSH: If war is forced upon us, we will fight in a just cause and by just means, sparing in every way we can the innocent. And if war is forced upon us, we will fight with the full force and might of the United States military and we will prevail.

SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE

GONYEA: The president's address was followed by the Democratic response delivered by a governor, Washington state's Gary Locke. He, too, spoke of the threat posed by Iraq and said Democrats support the path the president has taken so far. But he also spoke of the need for the US to work closely with its allies and to get UN support for any war. Locke focused mostly, though, on domestic concerns.

Governor GARY LOCKE (Democrat, Washington): I have no doubt that, together, we can meet these global challenges. But to be strong abroad, we need to be strong at home.

GONYEA: And on that front, he said the country is headed in the wrong direction. He pointed to two million jobs lost during the first two years of the Bush administration; 100,000 last month alone. And he pointed to the fact that a federal budget surplus is now gone, with huge deficits now forecast for the next decade.

Gov. LOCKE: These policies have powerful and painful consequences. States and cities now face our worst budget crises since World War II. We're being forced to cut vital services from police to fire to health care and many are being forced to raise taxes. We need a White House that understands the challenges our communities and people are facing across America.

GONYEA: Governor Locke said tax cuts should be targeted toward the middle class. He also criticized the administration's environmental record and said the president has not allocated enough money to education or to homeland security. It was a combative response for the Democrats and it highlights the divisions that will be fought over in Congress during the current session.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, the White House.

EDWARDS: The complete audio and text of the State of the Union address are at npr.org.

The time is 19 minutes past the hour.

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