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Bush Lauds Progress in Iraq, Economic Plan

The President's State of the Union Address

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The Democratic Response

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NPR Special Coverage (2 Hours)

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President Bush delivered his last State of the Union address to Congress Monday night, a speech dominated by his description of a policy shift that he said had brought success and the promise of victory in Iraq.

The president said that a year ago, the situation in Iraq was approaching chaos. But he said the promotion of a new commander, Gen. David Petraeus, and a new "surge" strategy, combined with additional troops, had reduced violence and begun a process by which Iraqis might take over their own security.

"Some may deny the surge is working, but among the terrorists there is no doubt," Bush said. "Al-Qaida is on the run in Iraq, and this enemy will be defeated."

At the same time, the president warned that withdrawing U.S. troops from the situation too quickly could bring al-Qaida roaring back and allow sectarian fighting to resume. Bush said 20,000 troops were coming home and would not be replaced, but that further withdrawals would await the judgment of commanders in the field.

"While the enemy is still dangerous and more work remains, the American and Iraqi surges have achieved results few of us could have imagined just one year ago," he said.

Tax Cuts and the Stimulus Package

The president also urged Congress to pass the $150 billion economic stimulus package he had worked out with leaders of both parties in both chambers. He said it would relieve anxiety about a slowdown in job growth and a decline in the housing market. He did not use the word recession.

"To build a prosperous future," he said, "we must trust people with their own money and empower them to grow our economy. "

Congress could also send positive signals to consumers by extending tax cuts originally passed in his first term, the president said, rather than letting them expire, as scheduled, beginning in 2010.

Taking on Earmarks

As an added prescription, the president said Congress could wean itself off its habit of earmarking dollars in appropriations bills to pay for special projects in individual states and districts. He also chastised Congress for refusing to approve his proposals for overhauling Social Security and immigration laws, the main thrusts of his domestic policy in his second term.

"Illegal immigration is complicated, but it can be resolved," he vowed. "And it must be resolved in a way that upholds both our laws and our highest ideals."

The speech was about 50 minutes long and was interrupted often by applause, as is traditional in these events. Republicans, sitting to the president's left, often rose in standing and cheering ovations. Most Democrats remained seated through most of these, applauding politely. But the mood in the chamber seemed more cordial than in past years, perhaps because the Congress senses the administration winding down.

Here, NPR reporters analyze key aspects of the president's address, summarizing his proposals and their prospects.

Addressing Climate Change

Climate change conference in Bali i

U.N. Climate Chief Yvo De Boer (left) gestures next to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (center) and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono during a conference on climate change in Nusa Dua, on the island of Bali, Dec. 15, 2007. Sonny Tumbelaka/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Sonny Tumbelaka/AFP/Getty Images
Climate change conference in Bali

U.N. Climate Chief Yvo De Boer (left) gestures next to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (center) and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono during a conference on climate change in Nusa Dua, on the island of Bali, Dec. 15, 2007.

Sonny Tumbelaka/AFP/Getty Images

What President Bush Said: "Let us create a new, international clean-technology fund, which will help developing nations like India and China make greater use of clean energy sources. And let us complete an international agreement that has the potential to slow, stop, and eventually reverse the growth of greenhouse gases. This agreement will be effective only if it includes commitments by every major economy and gives none a free ride. The United States is committed to strengthening our energy security and confronting global climate change. And the best way to meet these goals is for America to continue leading the way toward the development of cleaner and more efficient technology."

Analysis: An international agreement exists: the Kyoto Protocol, signed by virtually every country in the world except the U.S. What President Bush is proposing is an alternate track, one crafted by his administration and to include the major emitters of greenhouse gases, including China and India. The idea is to invent our way out of climate change, rather than demand cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. The problem is that almost no one takes that idea seriously; the rest of the world is committed to the international regime run by the United Nations.

The Bush proposal is seen as a way to dodge the mandatory commitments in the U.N. system. As for an international fund, discussions are under way with Japan and Great Britain to raise $2 billion for such a fund. Congress would have to approve it, and Congress has been reluctant in the past to approve international climate deals that don't require developing countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions.

Outlook in Congress: There are at least a half-dozen proposals working their way through committees in Congress to establish a system for the U.S. to start lowering its emissions of greenhouse gases, which continue to rise. These face formidable opponents who see limits on emissions as economy-busters. But there is momentum from the states and from the public that should lead to some type of system to put a cap on emissions that will gradually tighten over time. Such a bill is likely to include a "market" — in which businesses could buy and sell permits to emit carbon, lessening the pain of a cut in their own carbon dioxide emissions.

On the Campaign Trail: The Democratic candidates have all come down in favor of mandatory cap-and-trade systems as envisioned in most of the congressional bills. They have also emphasized the need to join the international community of nations that have signed onto the Kyoto Treaty — at least in whatever system follows Kyoto when it expires in 2012. GOP hopeful Sen. John McCain of Arizona is also a supporter of a cap-and-trade program — and a firm believer that the threat of climate change is serious and imminent. Other GOP candidates have not taken a strong or specific stance on climate-change policies. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has proposed voluntary efforts to lower emissions of greenhouse gases.

The Economy: Extending the Bush Tax Cuts

A dollar bill i

President Bush called on Congress to extend his big tax cuts, which otherwise expire in 2010. AP/Image Source hide caption

toggle caption AP/Image Source
A dollar bill

President Bush called on Congress to extend his big tax cuts, which otherwise expire in 2010.

AP/Image Source

What Bush Said: President Bush called on Congress to extend his big tax cuts, which otherwise expire in 2010. Unless Congress acts, Bush said, most of the tax relief Congress and the White House have delivered during his two terms will be taken away. He said that some in Washington would argue that letting tax breaks expire does not constitute a tax hike. But he said, "Try explaining that to the 116 million American taxpayers who would see their taxes rise by an average of $1,800."

Analysis: That $1,800 average is misleading. The president's tax cuts are heavily weighted toward the wealthy, and they'll lose much more than "average taxpayers," or taxpayers in the middle-income brackets, if the tax cuts are not made permanent. Citizens for Tax Justice, a liberal Washington watchdog group, estimates that over the 10 years from 2001 to 2010, the top 1 percent of taxpayers will receive more than $30,000 a year in tax relief from the Bush tax cuts, while the middle 20 percent will receive about $540 a year.

Outlook in Congress: Because Congress is under Democratic control, there is virtually no chance that all of the Bush tax cuts will be extended this year. Democrats have talked about, at some point, extending some of the tax cuts that are targeted at the middle class. On another note, this week, Congress is expected to take up an economic stimulus package crafted by House leaders and the White House.

On the Campaign Trail: The Democratic presidential candidates agree with the approach of keeping tax cuts that favor the middle class. Republicans running for president line up with President Bush and insist that extending the tax cuts is necessary for the long-term health of the economy.

Education: No Child Law, School Vouchers

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President Bush watches as a kindergarten class practices math during a visit to Silver Street Elementary School in New Albany, Ind., Mar. 2, 2007. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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President Bush watches as a kindergarten class practices math

President Bush watches as a kindergarten class practices math during a visit to Silver Street Elementary School in New Albany, Ind., Mar. 2, 2007.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

What Bush Said: President Bush asked Congress to hark back to one of the triumphs of his first term: passage of the No Child Left Behind Law in 2002. He asked Congress to reauthorize the law. "The No Child Left Behind Act is a bipartisan achievement," he said. "It is succeeding. And we owe it to America's children, their parents, and their teachers to strengthen this good law."

The president also called on Congress to approve a $300 million voucher program. It would provide grants so that low-income students in failing schools could attend private or religious schools. He called the program "Pell Grants for Kids," an allusion to the popular federal grant that helps low-income students attend college.

Analysis: Many educators dispute the effectiveness of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Teachers in particular say they're being asked to meet unrealistic standards, and have demanded more flexibility. Last year, House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller responded with an ambitious rewrite of the law, but the White House says those changes would greatly weaken No Child Left Behind. The discussion never got very far, and the effort to reauthorize the law stalled.

Bush pointed to data showing that last year, fourth- and eighth-graders achieved the highest math scores on record. He didn't mention that reading scores in those grades have stagnated, despite No Child Left Behind. The president noted that African-American and Hispanic students posted all-time high scores. What he did not say is that the "achievement gap" between whites and minorities remains very large. For Hispanics in particular, that gap has been particularly hard to address, and has not decreased during the period covered by NCLB.

Meanwhile, the voucher idea is not popular among many groups. Teachers and school administrators reject it outright, saying that vouchers steal money from public schools, which they say are already starved for funds. Democrats generally agree, and have shot down virtually every attempt to sponsor vouchers, except for the very limited D.C. Opportunity Scholarships cited by the president in his speech.

Outlook in Congress: Most education experts believe it is highly unlikely that the No Child Left Behind law will be reauthorized during an election year. They expect the law will stay on the books in its current form until a new president, and a new Congress, take office. As for the proposed voucher program, there is little chance Congress will even take up this idea in the president's final year.

On the Campaign Trail: Democrats running for president have all promised to radically revise or even to repeal No Child Left Behind. This month, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton said she would scrap the law, criticizing NCLB for narrowing the school curriculum by focusing primarily on reading and math. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama has criticized the administration for underfunding the program. But even a Democratic president would find it tough to throw out No Child Left Behind, because congressional Democrats, including Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, helped write the law and remain committed to its basic principles.

The 'Freedom Agenda' of U.S. Foreign Policy

What Bush Said: President Bush said his foreign policy is "based on a clear premise: We trust that people, when given the chance, will choose a future of freedom and peace." He has often spoken about what he calls his "freedom agenda." He pointed to elections in Georgia, Ukraine, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq. He does not mention, however, one vote that sorely tested the "freedom agenda" — when Hamas, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization, won elections in the Palestinian territories two years ago.

Analysis: The president has been toning down his criticism of key Arab allies. When he met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and other leaders during a recent swing through the Middle East, Bush did not openly criticize anyone's rule. Rather, he gently nudged for reforms and talked about the long-term, rather than the near term.

Expanding Health Care Through Tax Deductions

A doctor writes a prescription. i

A doctor writes a prescription. Burke/Triolo Productions hide caption

toggle caption Burke/Triolo Productions
A doctor writes a prescription.

A doctor writes a prescription.

Burke/Triolo Productions

What Bush Said: "We share a common goal: making health care more affordable and accessible for all Americans. The best way to achieve that goal is by expanding consumer choice, not government control. So I have proposed ending the bias in the tax code against those who do not get their health insurance through their employer. This one reform would put private coverage within reach for millions, and I call on the Congress to pass it this year."

Analysis: President Bush's proposal — originally unveiled in the 2007 State of the Union speech — would replace the existing tax exemption for employer-provided health insurance with a tax deduction for everyone, regardless of whether they get insurance on the job. Individuals would get a deduction worth $7,500; families would get $15,000.

That means for the first time, people who are not self-employed and who purchase their own coverage would get a tax benefit. But it would also mean that for the first time, people with very generous employer-provided coverage might have to pay taxes on the value of that coverage. And because the majority of the uninsured have low enough incomes that they pay little or no taxes, a tax deduction will not make insurance that much more affordable. The most optimistic estimate for the plan says it would reduce the number of uninsured Americans by less than 20 percent.

Outlook in Congress: Congress last year showed little interest in taking up the plan. Even Republicans who are generally supportive of the concept of using the tax code to advance health reform were furious when the Bush administration tried to tie it to the renewal of the State Children's Health Insurance Plan (S-CHIP).

On the Campaign Trail: All of the Republican presidential candidates have some sort of tax deduction or credit proposal that at least approximates what Bush has offered. None of the Democratic candidates does. The Democrats all have plans to provide universal or near-universal coverage with a series of government subsidies, employer contributions and individual mandates. Clearly, the stage is being set for a general election showdown on whether changing the tax code is the best way to address the problem of health care coverage.

Concerns over Iran's Nuclear Programs

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad i

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivers a speech during a visit to the city of Birjand, Iran, Nov. 7, 2007. Majid/Getty Images hide caption

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivers a speech during a visit to the city of Birjand, Iran, Nov. 7, 2007.

Majid/Getty Images

What Bush Said: The president sounded familiar themes on Iran, accusing it of "funding and training militia groups in Iraq, supporting Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon, and backing Hamas' efforts to undermine peace in the Holy Land." He also accused Iran of continuing to "develop its capability to enrich uranium, which could be used to create a nuclear weapon." He called on Iran's leaders to verifiably suspend nuclear enrichment, paving the way for the United States to enter into wide-ranging talks on economic and diplomatic issues with Iran.

Analysis: U.S. diplomats are in the midst of negotiations on a U.N. sanctions resolution aimed at building up pressure on Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions. News that the U.S. intelligence community believes that Iran halted a nuclear weapons program in 2003 has made the sanctions debate more complicated, according to diplomats involved. So the president has been repeating, often, all of his concerns about Iran's behavior, to remind U.S. partners why they need to act.

On the Campaign Trail: Iran has been a hot topic in Democratic presidential debates. The candidates have criticized the Bush administration for failing to open a dialogue with Tehran and branding it part of the "axis of evil" in a previous State of the Union speech.

Iraq and the Troop 'Surge'

U.S. soldier in Iraq i

Local Iraqi villagers look on as a U.S. soldier approaches during an operation hunting al-Qaida militants in a village near Salman Pak, on the outskirts of south Baghdad, Jan.28, 2008. Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Image hide caption

toggle caption Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Image
U.S. soldier in Iraq

Local Iraqi villagers look on as a U.S. soldier approaches during an operation hunting al-Qaida militants in a village near Salman Pak, on the outskirts of south Baghdad, Jan.28, 2008.

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Image

What Bush Said: President Bush tried to focus on a narrow part of the so-called "surge" of troops in Iraq. He said that the surge put al-Qaida on the defensive, forcing it from Baghdad and Anbar province into northern Iraqi cities like Mosul and to the remote areas south of Baghdad in Arab Jabour.

Analysis: The surge was designed to give the Iraqi government breathing space for reconciliation, and so far, there has been little of that. The legislation which the president sought and the "benchmarks" that he called for last year have largely not been met. There is no oil law. There have been no provincial elections. In his speech, the president noted that the Iraqi parliament recently passed a de-Baathification law; but he failed to mention that the measure is far more restrictive than the one the Bush administration had wanted.

Outlook in Congress: Congressional Democrats continue to criticize the Bush administration for what they call an open-ended commitment in Iraq. Lawmakers have balked at the cost and sometimes given the president less money than he sought. But Congress will likely continue to pay for the war.

On the Campaign Trail: The State of the Union speech will further divide the two parties. The Democratic presidential candidates keep saying they want to end the war. But they all want to keep some level of forces there to fight al-Qaida, train Iraqi forces and protect U.S. diplomats or humanitarian aid workers. On the Republican side, the candidates talk of success and victory, but have trouble defining it, or what will happen if the Iraqi government continues to stall on reconciliation. They haven't said how long U.S. troops should stay.

The Middle East Peace Process

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas i

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at Olmert's residence in Jerusalem, Jan. 8, 2008. The two leaders were meeting to revitalize their peace negotiations on the eve of President Bush's visit to the region. Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at Olmert's residence in Jerusalem, Jan. 8, 2008. The two leaders were meeting to revitalize their peace negotiations on the eve of President Bush's visit to the region.

Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images

What Bush Said: Just back from an eight-day swing through the Middle East, President Bush said he sees a "new cause for hope" in the region. "Palestinians have elected a president who recognizes that confronting terror is essential to achieving a state where his people can live in dignity and at peace with Israel. Israelis have leaders who recognize that a peaceful, democratic Palestinian state will be a source of lasting security." The president said that he will do everything to help the Israelis and Palestinians achieve a peace agreement that defines a Palestinian state by the end of the year.

Analysis:While Bush sounded optimistic, the situation on the ground in Gaza is a reminder of some of the many difficulties negotiators will face. Hamas, which doesn't recognize Israel, controls Gaza. In response to Hamas rocket attacks, Israel has tried to seal off the region. Now the United States is hoping that forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will be able to help. But Abbas has little, if any, control over Gaza, and his security forces are weak. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said that there can be no peace without Gaza as part of the package.

Outlook in Congress: On Capitol Hill, the issue mainly comes up in the context of funding requests for Palestinian security forces. That is always a controversial issue on the Hill.

On the Campaign Trail: The Middle East peace process probably won't be much of an issue, unless the presidential candidates see some progress that they feel they might be able to build upon.

Extending the Warrantless Wiretapping Law

What Bush Said: President Bush challenged Congress to pass new legislation that would help the U.S. government "know who the terrorists are talking to, what they are saying, and what they are planning." He was referring to the government's ability to carry out wiretapping of communications — phone calls or e-mails — involving suspected terrorists who are overseas. The authority to do that is in the Protect America Act, a six-month measure that is set to expire Friday.

"This means that if you do not act by Friday, our ability to track terrorist threats would be weakened, and our citizens will be in greater danger," the president said.

Analysis: In fact, no current wiretapping of suspected terrorist communications will have to be halted if Congress does not act by Friday. The law may expire, but the authority to continue surveillance already in progress remains in effect at least until August. That's because under the Protect America Act, those authorities were given for a year. There would be no "disruption" of the wiretaps that have already been authorized. However, if the law expires Friday, the attorney general would not be able to ask for any new intercepts. That means if intelligence collected through current wiretaps produces a new lead, the government may not be able to follow that up.

Outlook in Congress: There is support in Congress for revision of the surveillance legislation to provide most of the authority sought by the administration. Progress on getting new legislation passed, however, has been blocked by a disagreement over whether to provide retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that complied with warrantless surveillance requests after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Those companies face lawsuits by civil rights groups, and many Democrats in Congress oppose letting the companies "off the hook" for behavior they say was illegal. The Democratic-led House has already passed legislation renewing surveillance authority but not providing retroactive immunity — which the White House considers essential. The Senate Intelligence Committee has approved legislation that provides most of what the White House is seeking. Democratic critics want to be allowed to introduce amendments to the proposed legislation.

On the Campaign Trail: This is not much of an issue on the campaign trail.

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