The State of the Union: A Look Between the Lines

President George Bush delivers his 2006 State of the Union speech. i i
Reuters
President George Bush delivers his 2006 State of the Union speech.
Reuters

President Bush said in his State of the Union address Tuesday night that the economy is strong, there is progress in democratizing Iraq and success in fighting terrorism.

He also called for ending America's addiction to foreign oil and offered proposals to increase health insurance coverage.

NPR reporters offer their analysis of a number of key themes in the president's address, including Iraq, the economy and national security.

Familiar Health Care Proposals

Pharmacist, William Hewitt, (R) speaks with Aase Kjos-Hansen. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images. i i

hide captionProposals by President Bush would give more health care flexibility to individuals, and it would make people more responsible for their own care. Above, pharmacist William Hewitt explains Medicare's drug benefit to Aase Kjos-Hansen in Portland, Maine.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Pharmacist, William Hewitt, (R) speaks with Aase Kjos-Hansen. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

Proposals by President Bush would give more health care flexibility to individuals, and it would make people more responsible for their own care. Above, pharmacist William Hewitt explains Medicare's drug benefit to Aase Kjos-Hansen in Portland, Maine.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Health care was a larger focus of the president's 2006 speech than in past years — but many of the proposals were those he has unsuccessfully offered before. Bills to ban human cloning, to create "Association Health Plans" to help small businesses pool their buying power, and to limit medical malpractice damage awards have each passed the Republican-dominated House multiple times, but failed in the more closely divided Senate.

Background materials provided by the White House suggest that the administration will make a major push to expand the use of "Health Savings Accounts" (HSAs), originally authorized by the 2003 Medicare law. The number of people covered by HSA-eligible insurance polices has grown rapidly — to more than 3 million, tripling in just the past 10 months, according to the trade group America's Health Insurance Plans. But that remains a tiny fraction of a health system that covers more than 160 million Americans through their jobs.

HSAs combine with high-deductible health insurance plans to give consumers more control — and more responsiblity — over their health spending. Patients use the money in their HSA to pay for routine care, and can keep whatever they don't spend, giving them an incentive to seek out higher quality, less expensive services.

The president's proposals would give HSAs — already tax free — even more tax advantages. It would allow individuals who buy their own insurance the ability to deduct premiums for the high deductible insurance that accompanies an HSA. Currently only businesses and those who are self-employed can deduct premium costs. The President will also propose tax credits for low-income Americans to buy insurance — again, only insurance that goes with an HSA.

Domestic Surveillance: Asserting Presidential Power

The president defended his decision to authorize domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency, using the name the administration has recently attached to the controversial program: the "terrorist surveillance program." He echoed the Justice Department's view that federal courts have recognized the president's power to conduct foreign intelligence, and said that previous presidents have used this authority. The president noted, as he has before, that "two of the hijackers in the United States placed telephone calls to al-Qaida operatives overseas. But we did not know about their plans until it was too late," and said the NSA surveillance effort is meant to prevent such oversights in the future.

In fact, the CIA did know that two of the hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar, attended an al-Qaida meeting in Malaysia in 2000, and then traveled to the United States. But they were not put on terrorist watchlists until they were already in the U.S., and the FBI was not told to look for them until August of 2001. Critics of the adminstration's surveillance programs say that shows that basic incompetence prevented detection of the plot, not inadequate surveillance powers.

In addition, the two men were known to be affiliated with al-Qaida, so the government would have been able to get warrants to monitor their communications from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The administration's "terrorism surveillance program" has been attacked because it circumvents this court. While the president repeated the administration's belief that this program is legal, civil liberties groups believe it violates the 1978 law that created the surveillance court. These groups have filed several suits against the program, saying it has chilled free speech even among people who are not sure they were monitored. The Supreme Court has never given a definitive ruling on whether it is legal to conduct warrantless surveillance in this country, if the purpose is gathering foreign intelligence.

'Addicted to Oil'

An oil refinery in Kuwait. Credit: AFP/Getty Images/Yasser al-Zayyat. i i

hide captionPresident Bush said that America must end its dependence on imported oil. Bush said his goal is to cut the amount of oil flowing to the U.S. from refineries like this one in Kuwait.

Yasser al-Zayyat/AFP/Getty Images
An oil refinery in Kuwait. Credit: AFP/Getty Images/Yasser al-Zayyat.

President Bush said that America must end its dependence on imported oil. Bush said his goal is to cut the amount of oil flowing to the U.S. from refineries like this one in Kuwait.

Yasser al-Zayyat/AFP/Getty Images

In promising to help wean America from its addiction to imported oil, President Bush is in good company. Every American president since Richard Nixon has called for energy independence. And after more than three decades of promises, the United States imports more of its oil than ever.

President Bush called for breakthroughs in "two vital areas": how the United States powers its homes and offices, and how the country powers its cars. The first of these has little to do with oil. Only about 3 percent of electricity in the U. S. is generated with oil.

Coal is by far the largest source of power for homes and offices, followed by nuclear power and natural gas. Because existing coal-fired power plants contribute to air pollution and greenhouse gases, President Bush wants to invest more in cleaner coal technology.

He also called for increased investment in solar and wind-power research, although the dollar amounts in his 2007 budget — less than $200 million together — are fairly small. (ExxonMobil sells five times that much every day.)

Any discussion of reducing America's oil addiction must include cars and trucks, which burn about half the oil we use. President Bush proposed additional spending on high-tech batteries for hybrid vehicles and research into ways to make more ethanol from agricultural waste.

The largest single element in the president's "Advanced Energy Initiative" calls for spending $289 million on development of hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars. President Bush has been a champion of fuel-cell vehicles since his 2003 State of the Union address. Critics say his emphasis on futuristic solutions, while perhaps valuable in the long run, shortchange existing technologies that could provide meaningful fuel savings today.

Promoting Democracy Abroad

In his State of the Union address, President Bush said that tyrannies and dictatorships "shelter terrorists and feed resentment" — in places such as Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden developed his network before the Sept. 11 attacks. There's logic to that, but many counter-terrorism officials worry about home-grown terrorists operating in Western democracies. They point to the bombings on London's transportation system last year, and on Madrid's trains the year before. Those attackers had only an ideological link to al-Qaida.

The president also talked about promoting democracy — one of the administration's key platforms. Mr. Bush pointed to the relatively successful elections recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. But he hedged around the elections in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood — which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization — started making small political inroads. So too in the Palestinian territories, where Hamas, an organization that has made no secret of the fact that it wants Israel wiped off the map, won elections hands down. In his address, President Bush insisted that Hamas recognize Israel's right to exist and repeated that it must disarm and reject terrorism.

The president was equally firm with Iran, saying Tehran was defying the world with its nuclear ambitions, and that the U.S. and its allies cannot allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. It was one of the few moments of Tuesday's address that brought both sides of the house to applaud loudly.

State of the Economy

For many Americans, the State of the Union means the state of the economy. President Bush described an economy that is "healthy, and vigorous, and growing faster than other major industrialized nations." Despite hurricanes and high energy prices last year, the economy did grow at a healthy annual rate of 3.5 percent. Growth slowed sharply in the fourth quarter, however, to just over 1 percent. That's the slowest pace in three years.

President Bush noted that America has added 4.6 million new jobs in the last two-and-a-half years. Despite the improving job market, however, real wages have not kept pace with inflation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, real wages fell 0.9 percent last year, while workers' overall compensation (including benefits) was essentially flat.

President Bush says tax cuts helped spur the nation's economic growth during the last four years, because "Americans have more of their own money to spend, save and invest." He again urged lawmakers to make tax cuts permanent. Critics warn that would widen the federal deficit, unless the tax cuts are accompanied by corresponding spending cuts.

President Bush renewed his promise (from 2004) to cut the budget deficit in half by the end of his term. He boasts of consistently cutting "non-security discretionary spending," a record that excludes such big-ticket items as homeland security, entitlement programs and the Iraq war.

A 'Clear Plan for Victory' in Iraq

U.S. soldiers stand in front of the Iraqi national flag in Baghdad. Credit: Reuters/Ceerwan Aziz. i i

hide captionU.S. soldiers stand in front of the Iraqi national flag during a ceremony marking the handover of Forward Operating Base Camp Honor in Baghdad to Iraqi forces on Jan. 31, 2006.

Ceerwan Aziz/Reuters
U.S. soldiers stand in front of the Iraqi national flag in Baghdad. Credit: Reuters/Ceerwan Aziz.

U.S. soldiers stand in front of the Iraqi national flag during a ceremony marking the handover of Forward Operating Base Camp Honor in Baghdad to Iraqi forces on Jan. 31, 2006.

Ceerwan Aziz/Reuters

President Bush described an American military force on the offensive in Iraq with a "clear plan for victory." But he avoided specifics in favor of broad themes that included building an inclusive government, forging ahead with reconstruction and striking at insurgents. The president characteristically declined to offer a timetable for an American troop withdrawal, which he has argued would aid the insurgency, but noted that as Iraqi security forces increasingly take the lead, "we should be able to further decrease our troop levels." Those decisions, he said, would be made by military commanders rather than policymakers in Washington.

Mr. Bush drew applause when he singled out the family of Marine Staff Sgt. Dan Clay, who was killed last month fighting in Fallujah. As Clay's family looked on, the president quoted a letter in which Clay wrote, "I know what honor is. It has been an honor to protect and serve all of you. I faced death with the secure knowledge that you would not have to."

The passage served to highlight one aspect of the war that is working relatively well for the Bush administration. Although one recent report commissioned by the Pentagon said the Army was stretched into a "thin green line," the military by-and-large supports the war. And while the Army failed to meet its recruiting goals last year, those numbers have improved, allowing Bush to avoid the most dire predictions of war critics who feared a draft.

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