Bush 'SOU' Speeches Reflect Shifting Focus
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
So that's the battle for the next president. Let's talk about the current one.
Over the years, President Bush has used his annual State of the Union speech to promote tax cuts, make a cause for war, and to call for sweeping changes to programs, including Social Security and immigration policy.
He gives that speech again tonight, and NPR's Don Gonyea has this review.
DON GONYEA: A look back at the seven speeches the president has delivered this time of year to a joint session of Congress provides a kind of official White House guide to his presidency to date.
Let's go back to 2001, a speech that came just after the bitterly contested 2000 election.
The new president reached out to both parties, seeking what would be a signature accomplishment of his first term - school reforms known as No Child Left Behind.
President GEORGE BUSH: Measuring is the only way to know whether all our children are learning, and I want to know because I refuse to leave any child behind in America.
GONYEA: But one year later, the nation had been jarred and altered by the events of September 11th. The president that year was all about resolve.
President BUSH: As we gather tonight, our nation is at war, our economy is in recession, and the civilized world faces unprecedented dangers. Yet the state of our union has never been stronger.
(Soundbite of applause)
GONYEA: By the time of that speech, the Taliban government of Afghanistan had been overthrown by the U.S. military, and on that night the president made it known he was broadening his definition of the terrorist threat, putting Iraq, Iran and North Korea on notice with a provocative and now legendary turn of phrase.
President BUSH: States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger.
GONYEA: By the following year, the president was focused on Iraq. The invasion would begin in weeks, and Mr. Bush used the speech to state his case, including this line.
President BUSH: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
GONYEA: It was information that the CIA knew to be wrong and that the White House later admitted should not have been included. That line also eventually led veteran U.S. diplomat Joseph Wilson, who had investigated the uranium claim, to denounce the war. Wilson's wife, CIA operative Valerie Plame, later had her identity leaked to the press, setting off the scandal that has dogged the Bush White House ever since.
Delivering his next State of the Union a year later, President Bush shifted his rhetoric on Iraq. Prior to the war, he'd warned repeatedly and with certainty that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. But with the U.S. military having found no WMDs, the president spoke instead of, quote, "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities."
Reelected in November of that year, the president used his 2005 address to launch the most ambitious domestic policy goal of his presidency: remaking Social Security.
President BUSH: As we fix Social Security, we also have the responsibility to make the system a better deal for younger workers. And the best way to reach that goal is through voluntary personal retirement accounts.
(Soundbite of applause)
GONYEA: The president toured the country promoting the idea, but it went nowhere, even before Hurricane Katrina changed the subject for the rest of the year.
In 2006, Mr. Bush's State of the Union made energy policy a focal point and made this startling statement for a former oilman.
President BUSH: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.
GONYEA: Then came 2007, and suddenly the majorities facing him were now Democrats. The president warned them he would veto any timetables for ending the war, a threat he has made good on more than once, which brings us to tonight, Mr. Bush's last State of the Union.
Mindful that his time in office is short and that an election year can make it hard to get things done, the president will again say that the state of the nation is strong, though with caveats about a possible recession and new challenges in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. But the kind of game-changing initiatives we've seen in the past are likely a thing of the past.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.
INSKEEP: And you can hear President Bush's State of the Union speech tonight at 9 Eastern on many NPR stations and at npr.org, where we will also be blogging and fact-checking the president's remarks.