Bush defends his Iraq plan in State of the Union address


President George W. Bush sought Tuesday evening to assure the country that his plan to add more U.S. troops to Iraq was the best possible course of action, and also presented a comprehensive domestic agenda.

President George W. Bush sought Tuesday evening to assure the country that his plan to add more U.S. troops to Iraq was the best possible course of action, and also presented a comprehensive domestic agenda.

His State of the Union speech was also historic, as he noted, because it was a female House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who introduced him and became the first woman to be seated behind a president during the annual address. The chamber erupted in cheers when Bush said he had the privilege of being the first president to begin the annual address with the words "Madame Speaker."

Pelosi applauded the president longer than Vice President Dick Cheney when Bush first arrived in the chamber, although in general the president's remarks were less frequently interrupted by cheers and standing ovations than when Republicans were in control of Congress.

Confronted with falling poll numbers and, for the first time in his presidency, a Democrat-led Congress, Bush used his address to tout ambitious domestic plans. But most importantly, Bush laid out his reasons why his new plan for Iraq had "the best chance of success." The president said he chose to add thousands of American soldiers after "every possible approach" was considered.

"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," Bush said.

"Nothing is more important at this moment in our history than for America to succeed in the Middle East ... to succeed in Iraq ... and to spare the American people from this danger," Bush said, as Pelosi sat stone-faced and did not flinch when Cheney and Republicans jumped to their feet for a standing ovation.

But Bush also said that the U.S. commitment is not open-ended and "now is the time for [the Iraqi] government to act."

Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who delivered the Democratic response to the address, criticized Bush's Iraq policy, saaying, "The President took us into this war recklessly. We are now, as a nation, held hostage to the predictable - and predicted - disarray that has followed."

Webb pointed out that "a majority of the nation no longer supports the way this war is being fought; nor does the majority of our military."

He 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."

Bush extended several olive branches across the aisle. He congratulated the Democrats on their election victory and urged them to work with him on the issues.

"Our citizens don't much care which side of the aisle we sit on, as long as we are willing to cross that aisle when there is work to be done," the president said to bipartisan applause. "Our job is to make life better for our fellow Americans, and help them to build a future of hope and opportunity, and this is the business before us tonight."

Bush, facing the political reality that comes with a Democrat-controlled Congress, also proposed the establishment of an advisory council on the war on terror, which would include congressional leaders from both parties.

"We will share ideas for how to position America to meet every challenge that confronts us," Bush said, "And we will show our enemies abroad that we are united in the goal of victory."

Domestically, the president called for a balanced budget, which resulted in Pelosi leading a standing ovation. Bush said this could be achieved without raising tax, at which Republicans cheered loudly. Bush said he would send a budget to Congress that would eliminate the federal deficit within five years.

He called on lawmakers to cut back on earmarks, which he said "are often slipped into bills at the last hour - when not even C-SPAN is watching." The line drew chuckles from the crowd and a trademark smile from Cheney.

To keep the economy strong, Bush also stressed the need to improve federal entitlement programs. Failing to fix Medicare and to "save Social Security" would "leave our children with three bad options: huge tax increases, huge deficits, or huge and immediate cuts in benefits," the president said.

"Everyone in this Chamber knows this to be true - yet somehow we have not found it in ourselves to act," Bush added. "So let us work together and do it now."

The president also discussed his new health care initiative, which the White House has touted all week. Under the plan, the tax code would be changed to allow individuals to buy private health insurance more easily. In addition, the federal government would help the states find "innovative ways to cover the uninsured."

To reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, Bush called for a 20 percent reduction of gasoline usage in the next ten years. This would cut imports "by the equivalent of three-quarters of all the oil we now import from the Middle East," Bush said.

To achieve the goal, the president called for a fuels standard to require 25 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017, in addition to a reform of the fuel economy standards for cars. The president made a reference to "global climate change" and called it a "serious challenge."

Bush also tackled the controversial issue of immigration reform, which is unpopular with many members of his own party.

"Extending hope and opportunity in our country requires an immigration system worthy of America - with laws that are fair and borders that are secure," the president said. He added that a temporary worker program would help take pressure off the border. His comments drew a short shaking of the head by Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), one of the president's most outspoken critics on the issue.

Bush began his address by saying that he prayed for the speedy recovery of Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.), both of whom were absent from the address due to health reasons.

Among the president's guest for the address was Wesley Autrey, a New York construction worker who became famous when he jumped onto the tracks of the New York subway to save the life of a man who had suffered a seizure.