Fact-Checking the State of the Union Address

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In his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, President Bush highlighted a strong domestic economy, cited progress in democratizing Iraq and claimed success in fighting terrorism. John Ydstie examines some of the assertions put forth in the speech.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION. From NPR News, I'm Linda Wertheimer. During his State of the Union speech last night, President Bush highlighted a strong domestic economy, cited progress in democratizing Iraq, and claimed success in fighting terrorism. One of the few new proposals he made was aimed at ending America's addiction to oil. Of course, in his State of the Union speech presidents highlight the positives; but, as NPR's John Ydstie reports, in many areas, that may not tell the whole story.

JOHN YDSTIE reporting:

The two topics that got the greatest amount of attention from the president last night were Iraq and terrorism. Mr. Bush said the U.S. is on the offensive in Iraq with a clear plan for victory.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: In less than three years the nation has gone from dictatorship to liberation, to sovereignty, to a constitution, to national elections. At the same time, our coalition has been relentless in shutting off terrorist infiltration, clearing out insurgent strongholds, and turning over territory to Iraqi security forces.

YDSTIE: But as NPR Pentagon correspondent John Hendren points out, there was little acknowledgement from the president of the difficulties and setbacks the U.S. has experienced in Iraq.

JOHN HENDREN reporting:

He did not talk about the rising casualty numbers over there. He didn't talk about numbers for a pullout of American troops. No withdrawal date, although he did raise the prospect that there would be a gradual withdrawal of American troops as the Iraqi forces are trained. Really, what he talked about was broad themes of democracy expanding there and not really a lot else.

YDSTIE: The spread of democracy was, once again, a major State of the Union theme for President Bush. He said the offensive against terror involves more than just military action.

President BUSH: Ultimately, the only way to defeat the terrorists is to defeat their dark vision of hatred and fear by offering the hopeful alternative of political freedom and peaceful change. So, the United States of America supports democratic reform across the broader Middle East.

YDSTIE: But NPR's Jackie Northam reminds us that recent steps toward democracy in that region have not all been in the direction the U.S. might have hoped for or expected.

JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:

The result of elections in the Middle East has been not actually what they were hoping or expecting; and we point to something like Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood, which is a group that the United States has as a terror organization, started to make some very strong in roads politically there; and then of course just recently in the Palestinian territories we had Hamas that just won the elections, absolutely hands down, undisputed. Of course, Hamas is another organization that we deem as a terrorist group.

YDSTIE: The president also reminded his audience that the U.S. must remain on the offensive against terrorism at home. In that portion of his speech, he defended his use of warrantless wiretaps to monitor both American citizens and non-citizens communicating with those outside the country. Last night the president suggested the 9/11 attacks might have been avoided if, what he calls his terrorist surveillance program, had been in place.

President BUSH: We now know that two of the hijackers in the United States had placed telephone calls to Al Qaeda operatives overseas; but we did not know about their plans until it was too late. So, to prevent another attack, based on authority given to me by the Constitution by statute, I have authorized a terror surveillance program to aggressively pursue the international communications of suspected al Qaeda operatives and affiliates to and from America.

YDSTIE: But critics charged the president's warrantless surveillance program violates FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires the administration to obtain warrants for that kind of surveillance. Bruce Fein, who was an associate deputy attorney general in the Reagan Justice Department, says President Bush does not have the authority to ignore Congress's will as expressed in FISA.

Mr. BRUCE FEIN (Associate Deputy Attorney, Reagan Justice Department): No, he certainly does not; and first he refers to the fact that all the previous presidents asserted inherent Constitutional authority. They did; but that was before FISA was enacted. And the Supreme Court has said that the president's powers in foreign affairs are at their apex when Congress supports what the president is doing or acknowledging that they understand his claim of constitutional powers and that at its nadir, at its lowest ebb, when congress has told the president not to do something.

YDSTIE: And NPR's Larry Abramson says there were many failures leading up to 9/11, and it's unlikely the president's surveillance program would have caught the terrorists and foiled the attacks.

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

The problem was the CIA knew that these guys were dangerous, that they had been at a terrorist meeting in Malaysia, and then they didn't put them on a terrorist watch list. So, if they had simply done that it's possible they would have been stopped at the border. Somebody would have asked them questions. They would have linked them to the rest of the terrorists and the whole plot would have been interrupted.

The other problem was that the FBI didn't get its act together again when they did find out about them and try to track them down as quickly as possible. So, all of these agencies made many, many mistakes. There's no guarantee that the surveillance program would have helped them avoid those other mistakes.

YDSTIE: Despite the threats of terrorism, President Bush said last night that the U.S. economy is healthy and vigorous and growing faster than other industrialized countries.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: In the last two and a half years, America has created 4.6 million new jobs, more than Japan and the European Union combined.

(Soundbite of applause)

President BUSH: Even in the face of higher energy prices and natural disasters, the American people have turned in an economic performance that is the envy of the world.

YDSTIE: Mark Zandy, Chief Economist at Moodyseconomy.com, says the U.S. job market has improved and the economy is strong but he says the gains are not being distributed very evenly.

Mr. MARK ZANDY (Chief Economist, Moodyseconomy.com): Businesses have fared very well. High income, high net worth households have done very, very well but the lower middle income households haven't done quite as well. So, the economy is doing fantastically but the benefits of that have not gone down to everyone.

YDSTIE: Zandy also says Mr. Bush's statement that in every year of his presidency he has reduced the growth of non-security, discretionary spending was less than the full story. That designation leaves out things like the cost of Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and homeland security. Zandy says the country's finances have eroded sharply under President Bush.

Mr. ZANDY: When he took office, the U.S. government was running a record surplus of over $200 billion a year. At its worst back in fiscal year '04, the deficit was over $400 billion. This past fiscal year, '05, it was a little over $300 billion and according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, it will be well over $300 billion this year. So, by almost any measure, the nation's fiscal situation has sharply eroded in the past several years.

YDSTIE: Also last night, President Bush said the country must reduce its dependence on oil.

President BUSH: Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy and here we have a serious problem. America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.

YDSTIE: To ease that addiction the president proposed an advanced energy initiative: a 22% increase in clean energy research at the Department of Energy including work on zero emission coal plants, hydrogen fuel cells, batteries for hybrid cars and ethanol.

NPR's Scott Horsley says the President's proposal ignores the area where the U.S. has made the most progress in the past.

SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:

The biggest success that the country had in terms in reducing its reliance on foreign oil came in the late 1970s, in the early 1980s when we really did increase the efficiency of our vehicle fleet. About half the oil that we burn is to keep our cars and trucks on the road and in recent years we haven't been doing a very good job of improving the efficiency of that fleet.

YDSTIE: President Bush sat a goal of reducing U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil by 75% over the next 20 years. What he didn't say is that the largest foreign sources of U.S. petroleum are Canada, Mexico, Nigeria and Venezuela. Petroleum imports from the Middle East make up less than a fifth of the total.

John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.

WERTHEIMER: You can read the text of the speech and analysis by NPR reporters at NPR.org.

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