Features

The four-year plan

National | STATE OF THE UNION: President Bush's annual report to the nation lays out his agenda-and rationale-for a second term

Issue: "Iraq: The other caucuses," Jan. 31, 2004

If there was a single theme to President Bush's state of the union speech on Jan. 20, it would have been "unfinished business." Standing before a packed House of Representatives and a huge television audience, the president roamed across the political map, from Tikrit to terrorism to tax cuts, urging lawmakers to finish what they started: "We have not come all this way-through tragedy and trial and war-only to falter and leave our work unfinished," he said.

As he laid out before the Congress his legislative priorities, Mr. Bush was simultaneously laying out before the American public his case for reelection. For each of his administration's accomplishments-jump-starting the economy, facing down international terrorists, ridding the world of Saddam Hussein, ridding America of the death tax-Mr. Bush stressed that the victory was merely temporary, that permanence would require more time.

And more money. With the nation facing a record-breaking deficit of $500 billion, however, the president's spending proposals were relatively restrained. He requested increased funding to train workers, foster democracy in the Middle East, and return ex-convicts to a productive life after prison. Such modest new programs underlined the constraints of a wartime budget-and a restless right wing. Congressional conservatives have grown increasingly vocal in their criticism of the administration's free-spending ways, and Mr. Bush responded by asking Congress to limit the growth of discretionary spending to less than 4 percent a year. At that rate, he promised, the federal budget deficit could be cut in half within five years.

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Democrats grumbled that the Bush tax cuts, not discretionary spending, were behind the record deficits. But the president, rather than backing down from those cuts, urged Congress to make them permanent. (They're currently slated to expire after 10 years.) "What the Congress has given, the Congress should not take away," Mr. Bush admonished in a loose paraphrase of Job. "For the sake of job growth, the tax cuts you passed should be permanent."

Amid the usual laundry list of domestic concerns-abstinence education, medical savings accounts, immigration reform, and educational testing, among others-no issue was likely to be as controversial as the president's stance on traditional marriage. After praising lawmakers for passing the Defense of Marriage Act and noting pointedly that President Clinton signed it into law, Mr. Bush railed on judges who "have begun redefining marriage by court order, without regard for the will of the people and their elected representatives.... If judges insist on forcing their arbitrary will upon the people, the only alternative left to the people would be the constitutional process."

In foreign affairs, the president maintained the assured, muscular position that has come to define his approach to the world. After listing dozens of allied countries that sent troops to Iraq, Mr. Bush reiterated that America's foreign policy should not be dependent on international opinion. "America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our people," he declared in perhaps the feistiest line of the hour-long speech.

The president also answered critics-many of whom were busy campaigning in New Hampshire-who contend that terrorism should be treated as a crime rather than a war. "It is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers," he said. "The terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States, and war is what they got."

In summarizing the state of the nation, Mr. Bush was typically optimistic. "The state of our union is confident and strong," he said-a characterization he clearly hopes will hold up through November.

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