WASHINGTON — President Bush on Monday used his final State of the Union address to launch what the White House called "a sprint to the finish," but his modest agenda made clear that his dismal political standing and a wary Democratic Congress prohibit grand ambitions for his final year in office.
The address, delivered before a joint session of Congress that featured Republicans interrupting with frequent applause while Democrats often sat in silence, seemed aimed more at what presidential advisers called "realistic" goals for the year than trying to tackle major new challenges.
Though he remained insistent that his Iraq policy is working well — saying that "the American and Iraqi surges have achieved results few of us could have imagined just one year ago" — Bush asked Congress to take the lead on other initiatives that were the centerpieces of his earlier annual addresses, notably overhauls of immigration policy and Social Security, which both failed.
When Bush mentioned overhauling Social Security and immigration, members of both parties stood and applauded.
But those weren't the night's major talking points. Instead, Bush talked mostly about what might be possible in his final year in office. He voiced special pride in the $150 billion economic stimulus plan that he and congressional leaders forged last week, even as he acknowledged pain in the land.
"As we meet tonight, our economy is undergoing a period of uncertainty. ... And at kitchen tables across our country, there is concern about our economic future," the president said. "In the long run, Americans can be confident about our economic growth. But in the short run, we can all see that growth is slowing."
He cited a need for tax breaks, both short and long term, and said he would submit a budget next week that ends or substantially cuts 151 "wasteful or bloated programs" totaling more than $18 billion.
The president promised to veto any measure that doesn't halve the number and dollar amount of "earmarks," special projects that lawmakers insert into spending bills without due review.
"The people's trust in their government," Bush said, "is undermined by congressional earmarks."
Yet on balance, this was a gentler, more accommodating president, one signaling that he was still wounded from the bruising fights he endured last year with the Democratic Congress.
"In this election year," the president said, "let us show our fellow Americans that we recognize our responsibilities and are determined to meet them. And let us show them that Republicans and Democrats can compete for votes and cooperate for results at the same time."
Bush looked into an audience that included the two Democratic front-runners vying to replace him.
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., standing out in a bright red dress, looked very serious and even uncomfortable at times, particularly when she grudgingly applauded Bush's nod to making health care "more affordable and accessible for all Americans," a longtime Clinton goal.
Her chief rival, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., sat alongside Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who endorsed him earlier in the day. Obama also had a dead-serious look on his face.
This year the president remembered to include the effort to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina — a notable omission from last year's address — hailing "the armies of compassion (that) continue the march to a new day in the Gulf Coast."
He also offered more humble initiatives, such as urging the ratification of free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea; new help for military families; and $300 million in scholarships for poor children to help them attend private and faith-based schools or out-of-area public schools.
Bush also revisited more familiar topics. He asked Congress to strengthen the No Child Left Behind education law. He urged it to change the quasi-federal housing finance agencies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and to modernize the Federal Housing Administration.
On most specific new proposals, Bush aimed small.
One new initiative would allow service members to transfer any unused GI education benefits to spouses or children. The Army currently permits such transfers; under the Bush plan, all veterans, spouses or children could get up to 36 months of help for college, technical or vocational courses or job training.
Bush also would extend federal government hiring preferences now available to veterans to their spouses. Such ideas are unlikely to meet serious resistance.
Turning to the Iraq war, which enters its sixth year in March, Bush wouldn't budge from his view that the war is a noble and increasingly successful cause.
"One year ago, our enemies were succeeding in their efforts to plunge Iraq into chaos," he said. "So we reviewed our strategy and changed course."
Today, Bush said, "some may deny the surge is working, but among the terrorists there is no doubt. Al Qaida is on the run in Iraq, and this enemy will be defeated." As a result, he said, "the surge forces we sent to Iraq are beginning to come home."
Any further troop reduction, he said, "will be based on conditions in Iraq and the recommendations of our commanders."
In the Democratic response, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius had a different view of Iraq.
"The last five years have cost us dearly — in lives lost, in thousands of wounded warriors whose futures may never be the same, in challenges not met here at home because our resources were committed elsewhere," she said. "America's foreign policy has left us with fewer allies and more enemies."
The president also shook his rhetorical fist at Iran.
He blamed Iran for opposing freedom throughout the Middle East and potentially menacing the world.
"Above all, know this," Bush said. "America will confront those who threaten our troops, we will stand by our allies and we will defend our vital interests in the Persian Gulf." That, too, got a bipartisan ovation.
HIGHLIGHTS OF PRESIDENT BUSH'S STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS
Economy. Urges Congress to pass the $150 billion stimulus package quickly and to "make sure the tax relief that is now in place is made permanent."
Budget. Vows to veto any spending legislation that doesn't cut in half the dollar amount and number of earmarks, or special projects. Will issue an executive order Tuesday directing agencies to ignore any future earmark that Congress doesn't enact.
Military families. Proposes hiring preferences for military spouses and extending unused education benefits to spouses and children.
Education. Asks Congress to back a new $300 million "Pell Grants for Kids" program that would give scholarships to poor children in underperforming schools, allowing them to attend private or public schools of their choice.
Terrorism. Calls the law giving the government broad authority to monitor terrorist communications "one of the most important tools we can give the men and women who protect us from attack" and urges it be extended. Law expires Feb. 1.
Iraq. Wants full funding for the war. Insists that "the American and Iraqi surges have achieved results few of us could have imagined just one year ago."
Global compassion. Would double AIDS relief to certain countries and provide food assistance by purchasing crops directly from farmers in developing countries.
Trade. Wants Congress to approve free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.
McClatchy Newspapers 2008