In the first State of the Union address of his second term, U.S. President George W. Bush laid out an ambitious agenda that is designed to transform his country and the world. The speech marked the opening volley in Mr. Bush’s attempt to shape his legacy. He reveled in the victory afforded by Iraq’s elections, held only days before, yet warned that the war on terrorism will continue. In both domestic and foreign policy, the president walks a fine line: He wants to claim that the United States is better off after four years of his presidency, but he also must lay the foundation for fundamental change. It is a difficult balancing act.
Unlike his previous State of the Union addresses, Mr. Bush began this year’s with, and devoted more than half his speech to, domestic policy. It has become commonplace for the president to use the speech to unveil a number of initiatives, and Mr. Bush did not disappoint. They included calls for tax reform, changes in immigration law, a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between a man and a woman — a nod to religious conservatives, a key constituency — and support for a “culture of life” that would shape medical practices. In an effort to get government spending under control, he said the budget he will propose next week will either substantially reduce or eliminate more than 150 programs.
As anticipated, the centerpiece of his domestic agenda is reinventing Social Security, typically thought of as “the third rail” of U.S. politics in that attempts to change it are invariably fatal to the offending politician. It is a mark of his determination that Mr. Bush is forging ahead with plans for an overhaul of the system. Still, conscious of growing opposition, Mr. Bush is extremely careful in how he presents his reforms. He no longer uses words like “crisis” or “privatization,” and he has been reluctant to commit himself to specific proposals. Yet Mr. Bush appears determined to move forward despite shrinking support from even within his own party.
While Mr. Bush put domestic policy first, it has become apparent that he is most presidential when it comes to foreign policy. That is ironic, given his pledge as a candidate in 2000 to be more humble and circumspect in the use of U.S. power. Mr. Bush is now most comfortable in his role as commander in chief, and sees his mission as extending freedom and democracy throughout the world.
Mr. Bush applauded the Iraqi people for their courage in defying terrorists and voting in last Sunday’s ballot; in a gesture of solidarity, many members of Congress stained a finger with purple ink. While noting that the U.S. role in Iraq would change, he promised not to withdraw military forces until Iraq was capable of defending itself. Acknowledging that Iraq is just one piece of a larger puzzle, he called on Congress to provide $350 million to support the Palestinians as they attempt to resume peace negotiations with Israel.
While there was no rhetoric as memorable as the “axis of evil” phrase used in his 2002 speech, Mr. Bush was no less combative. Following up on his inaugural address pledge to fight tyranny and spread freedom, he urged the Iranian people to “stand for your own liberty” and pushed Saudi Arabia and Egypt to embrace more democratic reforms. That twist — challenging traditional U.S. allies to take bold steps — is an audacious move, designed to disarm critics who allege the U.S. has a double standard when it comes to democracy and to push the frontiers of liberty.
Mr. Bush continues to put the war against the terror at the center of his foreign policy. He explained that one of his primary tasks was leaving “an America that is safe from danger and protected by peace.” He promised to “stay on the offensive against [terrorists] until the fight is won.”
He warned Iran and Syria to stop their support for terrorism, and called on Tehran to give up its uranium-enrichment program, which is suspected of laying the foundation for a clandestine nuclear weapons program.
Closer to home, he mentioned North Korea only in passing, saying the U.S. was working closely with other countries to cap its nuclear program. That is part of a broader attempt to “continue to build the coalition that will defeat the dangers of our time.” The world waits to see how much effort and emphasis the second Bush administration puts on diplomacy.
Indeed, the question hanging over the entire second Bush term is how this administration will square policy with its ambitions. Does Mr. Bush’s sweeping rhetoric anticipate equally bold action? Unnamed senior officials have tried to dampen concern, arguing that the president is merely charting a course. They dismiss any apparent contradictions. Yet his first term suggests that the world takes him lightly at its peril.
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