Bush Asks Congress to Give Iraq Strategy a Chance

George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Nancy Pelosi. Credit: Larry Downing/AFP/Getty Images. i i

hide captionPresident George W. Bush delivers the annual State of the Union address. Vice President Dick Cheney and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi applaud in the background.

Larry Downing/AFP/Getty Images
George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Nancy Pelosi. Credit: Larry Downing/AFP/Getty Images.

President George W. Bush delivers the annual State of the Union address. Vice President Dick Cheney and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi applaud in the background.

Larry Downing/AFP/Getty Images

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President Bush opened his State of the Union address Tuesday night with a nod to Nancy Pelosi, acknowledging that he's the first president to begin an address to Congress with the words, "Madam Speaker."

Pelosi sat behind him as the nation's first female speaker of the House, but also as a powerful symbol of Bush's new political reality. For the first time, he faced a Congress wholly controlled by the Democratic party.

"We are not the first to come here with government divided and uncertainty in the air," the president said. "Like many before us, we can work through our differences, and achieve big things for the American people."

White House aides do not deny the president is politically diminished. Rather, they pointed to this speech as a chance for him to regain Americans' trust by offering bold ideas.

Bush offered a proposal that he said would make health insurance more affordable. And he laid out a plan to reduce the amount of gasoline Americans use to power their automobiles, with a goal of decreasing gas consumption for this purpose by 20 percent over 10 years.

But even as he sought to focus on some domestic issues, his speech eventually turned to Iraq — which dominated the evening. Bush used the latter part of his address to implore lawmakers to stand with him.

"This is not the fight we entered in Iraq," Bush said. "But it is the fight we are in."

Mindful that Democrats — and not a few Republicans — oppose his plan to send additional troops to Iraq, the president said: "Our country is pursuing a new strategy in Iraq — and I ask you to give it a chance to work."

In his Democratic response, newly elected Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia said Bush took the nation to war in Iraq "recklessly."

"We are now, as a nation, held hostage to the predictable — and predicted — disarray that has followed," Webb said.

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


Climate Change

by Christopher Joyce

President Bush cited the need to confront the "serious challenge of climate change." In that one sentence he gave the controversial topic more attention than it has had in his five previous State of the Union addresses.

But the president's initiative to cut gasoline consumption 15 percent by producing 35 billion gallons of ethanol is primarily aimed at curing America's addiction to oil. So too is his new promise to raise the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks. And while these two projects would also reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that warms the atmosphere, it only addresses the least of the sources of greenhouse gases.

Only about a third of the CO2 this country produces comes from cars, trucks, buses, SUVs and the like. Most comes from coal- and gas-fired power plants and factories. While the president calls for more work on wind, solar and nuclear power to make electricity, there's nothing specific from him about how to do that. Numerous government projects to do that are already underway, from funding for clean-coal technology to tax breaks for wind power. But there was no mention in Tuesday night's speech of improving the efficiency of power plants, and the appliances that use electricity, the approach many energy experts say is the cheapest and easiest way to reduce CO2 right away.

Dramatically raising the contribution of ethanol to the transportation fuel mix also doesn't reduce CO2 in a one-to-one ratio with gasoline. To put it another way — if you replace a gallon of gasoline with a gallon of ethanol, you don't get a net reduction of all the CO2 in that gallon of gasoline. That's because it takes fossil fuels like coal and natural gas to make ethanol, and those fuels produce CO2. So while there would be a net decrease of CO2 emissions with more ethanol in our fuel tanks, it isn't going to make as much of a dent as the numbers might suggest.


Education

by Steven Drummond

The president devoted very little time in his speech to the signature domestic issue of his first term: education. The No Child Left Behind law is up for reauthorization in Congress this year, and in his speech the president noted the spirit of cooperation from Democrats that helped him get the law passed.

"Five years ago we rose above partisan differences to pass the No Child Left Behind Act — preserving local control, raising standards in public schools, and holding those schools accountable for results," the president said.

Then he touted the law's successes: "And because we acted, students are performing better in reading and math, and minority students are closing the achievement gap."

Well, sort of. There's no question the law has had a significant impact on the nation's 14,000 school districts. But the results from the tests known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress are more mixed than the president suggested. The administration can point to some modest gains in math and reading among fourth graders, and math among 8th graders. But in 8th grade reading, test scores fell from 2002 to 2005. And the achievement gap between black and white students in that period actually widened a little.

The less encouraging numbers among older students are troubling to many educators. And they may be one reason the president is proposing, as he has suggested in the past, extending the testing provisions of No Child Left Behind to high schools.

Bush and others, including Bill Gates and the National Governors Association, have called for a major rethinking of high schools in this country in an attempt to better prepare students for jobs, or for college.

Extending No Child Left Behind to high schools was one of the few new proposals put out Tuesday by the White House on education. Mostly, the president called for "strengthening" or maintaining or adding "flexibility" to key elements of the existing law.

Support for the law remains fairly strong among key Democrats, including Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. But it's unclear whether Congress will actually get to the reauthorization this year.


Energy Policy

by Scott Horsley

The centerpiece of the president's energy proposal is what the White House calls "Twenty in Ten," a plan to cut gasoline consumption by 20 percent within the next ten years. Three-fourths of that cut would be replaced under the president's plan by alternative fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel. The remaining fourth of the savings would come from improved vehicle efficiency.

The White House describes the plan as "bold" and "ambitious." It calls for a nearly five-fold increase in alternative fuel production, from the current requirement of 7.5 billion gallons in 2012 to 35 billion gallons by 2017. On the fuel efficiency side, however, the plan is fairly modest.

Experts say the U.S. could easily achieve much greater gains in fuel economy, especially since the average vehicle sold last year got fewer miles to the gallon than a vehicle sold two decades ago — but had nearly twice the horsepower and weighed 900 pounds more. On Monday, a dozen senators (10 Democrats, two Republicans) proposed requiring that all cars and light trucks average 35 miles per gallon by 2019. The current average is about 25 mpg.

Boosting fuel economy would do more to control greenhouse gases than switching fuels. Although ethanol burns somewhat cleaner than gasoline, the cleanest gallon is the one that is not burned at all.

President Bush also called for an increase in domestic oil production, including drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Alaskan oil production fell last year by 12 percent, thanks in part to the temporary shutdown of Prudhoe Bay after a pipeline leak.

But oil production in the lower 48 states increased for the first time in six years, thanks in part to high prices (and the recovery from the previous year's hurricanes).

President Bush wants to double the size of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, as a cushion against future supply shocks. The petroleum reserve already holds 40 percent more oil than it did in 1985. But because the U.S. is more dependent than ever on foreign oil, today's reserve would last less than half as long, if imports were suddenly cut off.


Federal Budget

by Brian Naylor

The president's call for spending discipline in Congress comes as Democratic leaders are well on the way to establishing strict spending guidelines of their own. The president is correct, the deficit has declined. It was $248 billion last fiscal year, down from $318 billion the year before. The drop came thanks to larger-than-expected tax revenues, despite spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Democrats have already said they will come up with a budget that is balanced in five years.

The president also called for reforms of so-called "earmarks," the special projects that lawmakers insert into spending and other bills without hearings, often in the dead of night. Democrats say many of those earmarks were inserted at the behest of the White House.

Leaders in the House and Senate have begun implementing stricter guidelines. The day after Democrats took control of Congress, the House approved a rule requiring all earmarks to be identified by their sponsors and include justifications (and certifications that the earmarks will not benefit lawmakers or their spouses).

The Senate has also approved changes to its rules which will allow senators to raise a point of order against bills containing earmarks that are not identified. In the current fiscal year, Democrats have stated they will impose a moratorium on earmarks.

Lawmakers in the last Congress were able to approve only two of the 13 bills needed to fund government spending, and so government agencies will operate at last year's spending levels, with some adjustments.

The president called for taking on the challenge of entitlements, the Social Security and Medicare programs that together constitute the biggest chunk of federal spending. He did not suggest a way of doing this. Democrats have previously rejected his proposal for personal spending accounts as privatizing the system.


Health Care

by Julie Rovner

Polls show that concerns about the rising costs of health care are among the public's top economic worries. It's a top priority for the new Democratic Congress, and for Republican and Democratic governors around the country.

So for the first time in his presidency, this year President Bush made the plight of nearly 47 million Americans without health insurance front and center in his State of the Union address.

The president's plan has two major parts.

The first would change the tax treatment of health insurance. Currently, people who get health insurance from their employer pay no tax on the value of those benefits, no matter how generous. Those who are self-employed can deduct the cost of their health insurance premiums. But those who buy their own coverage, either because their employer doesn't offer insurance or because they don't qualify for the coverage that's offered, get no tax benefit.

That's widely perceived as unfair. But it hasn't been fixed because of the large price tag. President Bush's plan would be financed by taxing — for the first time — the value of employer-provided health insurance above a certain threshold: $15,000 for a family and $7,500 for an individual in 2009. The administration estimates that would affect about 20 percent of those who now have employer-provided coverage; roughly 30 million people.

Those thresholds would rise with the cost of general inflation in future years, a rate expected to be far slower than medical inflation. So, in future years more and more people would end up paying taxes on their employer-provided health care.

Conservative economists praise the plan because it would not only "level the playing field" for all insurance buyers, but it would create an incentive for lower-cost insurance packages that does not now exist. But critics say it would also create an incentive for employers to drop coverage and drive people into the individual market where those who are older or sicker may have a difficult or impossible time finding coverage at any price.

Critics also say that a tax deduction will be of little help to low-income uninsured families. They typically don't earn enough to pay much in income tax, so even with the deduction insurance would still likely remain out of reach.

The second part of the plan would divert about $30 billion that now goes to hospitals and other health-care providers that serve low-income patients. The money would go instead to states that are working to overhaul their health-care systems to subsidize the cost of "basic" insurance policies for low-income individuals and families.


Immigration

by Jennifer Ludden

President Bush repeated his call for a guest-worker program, urging Congress to hold a "serious, civil and conclusive" debate on immigration. Acknowledging that the issue is a difficult and emotional one, he said the status of undocumented immigrants already in the U.S should also be addressed "without animosity and without amnesty."

The president has been passionate about this issue since the beginning of his first term. But a temporary worker program was derailed first by the Sept. 11 attacks, then by hard-line Republicans in the House of Representatives. The only thing new in Bush's plan this time is the Democratic majority in Congress that he now has to work with. They gave hearty applause to the idea, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi nodded.

At the same time, Bush emphasized his administration's stepped-up enforcement measures, including an expected doubling of the number of border patrol agents and an increase in workplace raids. The Department of Homeland Security says the number of such arrests spiked seven-fold between 2002 and 2006. He also called for a renewal of the "melting pot" and the assimilation of newcomers.

Still, conservative Republicans strongly oppose what they call amnesty. Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado issued a statement calling the president "tone deaf" to public opposition. In fact, most polls show some two-thirds of Americans support legalizing undocumented immigrants, if they are made to pay fines and learn English, ideas Bush supports.

The Democratic leadership in the House is certainly more amenable to legalizing foreign workers than their GOP predecessors. But they are likely to encounter some of the same deep divisions within their own party. Some African-Americans, in particular, worry about competing with foreign workers for jobs. And a number of newly elected Democrats are so-called "Blue Dog" conservatives who campaigned on a get-tough approach to immigration.


Iraq and U.S. Foreign Policy

by Michele Kelemen

President Bush defended his plan to beef up U.S. military presence in Iraq to a skeptical audience on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers on both sides of the aisles are preparing resolutions against it. He said "many in this chamber understand that America must not fail in Iraq — because you understand that the consequences of failure would be grievous and far reaching."

The president described Iraq as part of a broader struggle in the Middle East, as he put it, "a decisive ideological struggle."

The president described 2005 as a time when "liberty" advanced, with elections in Afghanistan and Iraq and street protests in Lebanon that drove out Syrian forces. But all that changed last year, the president said, when "a thinking enemy watched all of these scenes, adjusted their tactics, and in 2006 they struck back."

Now, the Bush administration sees a split in the Middle East, with extremists, both Sunni and Shiia, on one side and moderates on the other.

In past State of the Union addresses, President Bush emphasized the need for democratic reform in the Arab world, singling out Egypt and Saudi Arabia. This time, he described those countries as moderates. His speech did not address the electoral advances of Islamist parties in Egypt, Iraq and the Palestinian Authority.

The only countries he named Tuesday night as targets in America's democracy push were Burma, Cuba and Belarus.

The president broke no new ground on his policy toward Iran. He once again accused Iran and Syria of supporting extremists throughout the Middle East.

While many analysts and members of Congress have urged him to open a dialogue with Iraq's neighbors — including Iran and Syria — the president has balked.

In the Democratic rebuttal, Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia called for "an immediate shift toward strong regionally based diplomacy, a policy that takes our soldiers off the streets of Iraq's cities, and a formula that will in short order allow our combat forces to leave Iraq."

"This country has patiently endured a mismanaged war for nearly four years," Webb said. "We are now, as a nation, held hostage to the predictable — and predicted — disarray that has followed."


Iraq and the U.S. Military

by Tom Bowman

President Bush talked about his "new strategy" for Iraq that includes sending in some 21,000 additional soldiers and Marines to secure the country, particularly Baghdad.

It's a strategy that also depends on the Iraqi government sending in thousands of soldiers and police to help pacify the capital. Whether that happens is uncertain. Last summer, the Iraqis pledged to send in troops to quell the violence in Baghdad, but few showed up. That operation, dubbed "Together Forward" ended as a failure.

The president also wants the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to work toward disbanding sectarian militias, which he has promised to do since taking power eight months ago. One problem is that Maliki's political ally, Muqtada al-Sadr, runs the largest Shia militia, the Mehdi Army.

And the president said he wants to make sure there are no "needless restrictions" on U.S. and Iraqi forces. Last fall, Maliki's government made the Americans remove roadblocks in parts of Baghdad, refused to let U.S. troops go into Sadr City, a hotbed of Shia extremism, and released suspected insurgents arrested by the U.S. military.

The president gave no indication of any consequences if the Iraqi government fails to hold up its side of the bargain.

President Bush said that the United States must send in additional forces, on top of the current 132,000 American troops, because the Iraqi security forces are not yet up to the task. But the president said that the Iraqis will be "in the lead" during the Baghdad operation — a seeming contradiction.

Many military officers say the Iraqi security forces are a "mixed bag," with serious questions about competency and loyalty. Many Iraqi army units are only a fraction of their stated size. There are desertions and a liberal leave policy that allows soldiers to take off at least one week a month to return to their families.

When I was in Anbar Province last fall, I was with two Iraqi battalions, which were each supposed to have 750 soldiers. One unit had 120 soldiers on hand; the other had 140 soldiers. At the same time, the Iraqi national police are considered rife with members of Shia militia groups who either commit crimes or look the other way when they see death-squad activity.

But it is these very army and police units that will be expected to help the Americans bring down the violence in Baghdad.

Besides Iraq, the president said he would work with the Congress in setting up a volunteer Civilian Reserve Force. It would function like a military reserve and would call upon citizens with critical skills to help in overseas missions. That is clearly an effort to give some relief to active military and reserve forces stretched thin by the ongoing missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Finally, the president pledged to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps by 92,000 over the next five years. That will be pricey. The Army estimates that the added soldiers — representing 65,000 of the 92,000 total — will cost an additional $70 billion in the coming years.

And there will be problems finding quality recruits. The Army — over the past two years — has been given authority to temporarily increase its size by 30,000 and is expected to reach that goal by year's end. The Army will now have to find another 35,000 to reach its 65,000 goal.

But to reach its goals, the Army has been forced to bring in more recruits with the lowest acceptable scores on the military aptitude test, and to accept records with minor crimes, such as drunken driving, marijuana use and vandalism. That has led some defense analysts to worry that the Army is lowering its standards.

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