| George W. Bush during his State of the Union address at Capitol Hill, Washington DC. (Reuters)
Washington, Jan. 21 (Reuters): President George W. Bush made a defiant defence of the Iraq war yesterday and urged Americans to stick with his leadership in an election-year State of the Union address that offered a point-by-point rebuttal of his Democratic challengers.
“We have not come all this way — through tragedy, and trial, and war — only to falter and leave our work unfinished,” Bush said in the chamber of the House of Representatives before a joint session of Congress and millions watching on television.
Seeking to capture the momentum going into a hotly contested presidential contest, Bush declared the state of the union “confident and strong” and set out an election year, stay-the-course agenda sprinkled with modest domestic proposals and warnings that the memory of September 11, 2001, requires a tough approach to terrorism.
Responding to some voters’ concerns that he has mishandled the domestic agenda, he proposed making his tax cuts permanent and called for giving small businesses the right to band together and negotiate lower health insurance rates. He proposed job training grants for unemployed workers.
At a time when Democrats battling for their party’s presidential nomination are lobbing attacks against him, Bush said Americans “face a choice” and can either go forward with him or turn back. “We can go forward with confidence and resolve — or we can turn back to the dangerous illusion that terrorists are not plotting and outlaw regimes are no threat to us,” he said in his 54-minute speech.
“We can press on with economic growth, and reforms in education and medicare — or we can turn back to the old policies and old divisions,” he said.
Bush spoke a day after the Iowa Democratic caucuses that saw Massachusetts Senator John Kerry charge to the head of a crowded field. Republican strategists said Kerry could offer Bush a tougher fight for re-election than Iowa’s third-place finisher, former Vermont governor Howard Dean.
Following the President’s address, Kerry said: “There’s just two different worlds here — the world the President talks about and the world that Americans are living and I think that’s what we’re going to see unfold over the course of these next months.”
A new poll by Zogby International said Bush looked vulnerable. It gave him a 49 per cent job approval rating, dropping from 53 per cent in mid-December.
Some of his most impassioned language was in defending the Iraq war against Democrats who say he invaded without UN support based on faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, which have never been found.
Bush used last year’s address to make the case against Iraq, citing various charges that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons and was trying to build a nuclear weapon. This year, Bush said chief weapons hunter David Kay, while finding no actual weapons, had identified dozens of weapons of mass destruction programmes. He did not mention that Kay has been considering leaving his job.
“Had we failed to act, the dictator’s weapons of mass destruction programmes would continue to this day,” Bush said. As he spoke, Senator Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, could be seen shaking his head in disagreement.
To critics that the US went to war without UN support, Bush said 34 countries were allies and there is a difference between leading a coalition and “submitting to the objections of a few,” meaning opponents like France and Germany.
“America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our country,” he said.
Bush called for a renewal of the Patriot Act that increased law enforcement powers in response to the September 11, 2001, attacks. Several Democrats drew a flinty stare from the President by applauding when he said the act is set to expire next year. Many Democrats feel the act encroaches on civil rights.
Bush made no apologies for his touch approach to the war on terrorism, dismissing what he said were those who question whether America is really in a war and view terrorism more as a crime.
“After the chaos and carnage of September 11, it is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers,” he said.
Bush suggested the Iraq war was a factor in Libya’s decision to give up weapons of mass destruction instead of long-standing economic sanctions.