NASHVILLE, Tenn.—President Bush took his State of the Union message to friendly heartland country Wednesday, arguing that American isolationism won't ease the nation's burdens and reasserting that he operated legally when he ordered a secret domestic surveillance program.
"Let me put it in Texan: If al-Qaida is calling the United States, we want to know," Bush told a receptive crowd at the Grand Ole Opry House.
That line was a variation of one he gave Tuesday night in his State of the Union speech. It's becoming the administration's mantra against critics—which include lawmakers from both political parties—who question whether Bush had legal authority to order warrantless eavesdropping without permission from a secret federal court created to check such activity. The Senate Judiciary Committee opens hearings on the question Monday.
Several people in the largely supportive audience sided with the president.
"I don't know, I think he did the right thing," said Wendy Foster, a 37-year-old schoolteacher. "What he did was best for the country."
Tickets for the event were distributed through the state Republican Party, Republican members of Congress and organizations considered receptive to Bush's agenda.
Bush stood on a stage festooned with the trappings of a political campaign. He said his main message was to allay concerns about Iraq, the U.S. economy and terrorism—issues that Bush fears are driving Americans to turn inward rather than embrace his vision of changing the world by spreading democracy.
"People are uncertain, in spite of our strong union, because of war," Bush said. "And I understand that. ... And during times of uncertainty it's important for me to do what I'm doing today, which is explain the path to victory, to do the best I can to articulate my optimism about the future."
He warned repeatedly against the danger of "isolationism," which he defined as America pulling back from engagement with the world.
"If we were to withdraw, not only would we cede ground to the terrorists and endanger this country, we would miss a fantastic opportunity to help spread liberty," Bush said.
It was the message Kay Brooks wanted to hear.
"We need to be as optimistic as we can be to spread freedom," said Brooks, who home-schools her two teenage daughters. "I'm not as concerned about domestic issues. If we can't be safe in our day to day life, nothing else is important."
Bush spoke in a state that's been good to him. He carried Tennessee in the 2004 presidential election in a 56.8 percent to 42.5 percent victory over Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. In 2000, he defeated former Vice President Al Gore in Gore's home state by 51.1 percent to 47.3 percent.
The Democratic National Committee aired a TV ad in Nashville Wednesday morning titled "Broken Promises." It alleged that Bush's policies had cost some 62,000 Tennessee manufacturing workers their jobs and left some 10,800 Tennessee soldiers exposed to harm in Iraq by giving them inadequate body armor.
Wednesday's speech was part of an administration full-court press to reinvigorate Bush's second-term agenda. As he spoke in Nashville, officials in Washington briefed reporters on key themes that Bush had covered Tuesday night. They had little to add, other than effusive praise for the president and his State of the Union speech.
More details will be filled in Monday when the White House releases Bush's proposed fiscal 2007 federal budget. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said it would include $380 million as a down payment for Bush's plan to train or recruit 100,000 math and science teachers over the next eight years.
"As a mother who's living this every day—I have an eighth-grader who's struggling with algebra even as we speak—and as someone who talks to my fellow soccer moms about this, I know there's a lot of math anxiety out there," Spellings said.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Ron Hutcheson contributed from Washington.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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