War in Iraq Clouds State of the Union

Addressing a joint session of a Congress now controlled by Democrats, President Bush asks for patience on Iraq. On the domestic front, he seeks policy changes on energy, health insurance and immigration.

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For the first time during his presidency, George W. Bush, last night, addressed the joint session of Congress controlled by Democrats. In his State of the Union address the president called for greater energy independence, tax breaks to help uninsured Americans pay for health insurance, and an immigration overhaul that included a guest worker program. Hanging over everything was Iraq. Mr. Bush argued again that failure in the war would be disastrous for the U.S. and its allies.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA: So how does an unpopular president presiding over an unpopular war and addressing a hostile Congress begin a State of the Union speech?

(Soundbite of applause)

Last night, President Bush used the gracious approach, praising new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Thank you very much. And tonight I have the high privilege and distinct honor of my own as the first president to begin the State of the Union message with these words: Madam Speaker.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: The president then offered congratulations to Democrats for their victory in November elections, adding this call for cooperation.

President BUSH: Our citizens don't much care which side they are, we sit on, as long as we're willing to cross that aisle when there's work to be done.

GONYEA: The first half of the 49-minute speech dealt with domestic issues, the president signaling that despite all the attention the Iraq war gets, he has things he wants to accomplish at home as well. The biggest new proposal calls for automatic tax deductions of $15,000 for families and $7,500 for individuals to help cover the cost of health insurance, the plan that the White House says actually been talking about for several days now.

President BUSH: For Americans you now purchase health insurance on their own, this proposal would mean a substantial tax savings - $4,500 for a family of four making $60,000 a year. And for the millions of other Americans who have no health insurance at all, this deduction would help put a basic private health insurance plan within their reach.

GONYEA: But the plan would also make employer-provided health insurance plans taxable income. That's a change that would mean a tax increase for some, although the White House says the vast majority of Americans would see a net cut. Still, the president did not mention that part of the plan last night. The second half of the speech dealt with foreign policy, mostly Iraq with the president recognizing discontent over the war.

President BUSH: Every one of us wishes that this war were over and won. Yet it would not be like us to leave our promises unkept, our friends abandoned, and our own security at risk.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: And he insisted, as he did in another primetime speech two weeks ago, that with more troops and the necessary resolve, victory can still be won. The president did not speak directly to any of the proposed congressional resolutions, some with bipartisan support aimed at blocking his call for a troop increase of more than 20,000. He did however, note opposition to his Iraq policies within Congress, making this plea for support.

President BUSH: I've spoken with many of you in person. I respect you and the arguments you've made. We went into this largely united - in our assumptions, and in our convictions. And whatever you voted for, you did not vote for failure. Our country is pursuing a new strategy in Iraq - and I ask you to give it a chance to work. And I ask you to support our troops in the field - and those on their way.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: The president ended his speech with something that has become a standard feature of State of the Union addresses, the recognition of ordinary citizens who have accomplished important things. Seated in the gallery was Wesley Autrey of New York City, who jumped onto the subway tracks recently to save a man who'd fallen into the path of a train. The president used Autrey's story as a way to talk about Iraq as well.

President BUSH: He insists he is not a hero. He says, we got guys and girls overseas dying for us to have our freedoms, we have got to show each other some love. There is something wonderful about a country that produces a brave and humble man, like Wesley Autrey.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: As Autrey basked in the applause, the president smiled widely. It was a moment when the chamber did seem genuinely united, if only for a moment.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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