President Bush focused on familiar themes in this evening's State of the Union address -- urging Americans to support the Iraq war, Social Security reform, and aggressive efforts to stop new terror attacks -- and also challenged the nation to wean itself from oil.
"America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world," Bush said in the speech, the fifth State of the Union address of his presidency. Oil prices are near $70 a barrel, and the effects have been felt at gas stations across the country.
Bush has called for less dependence on foreign oil sources before, but this was his most dramatic push for energy alternatives. He proposed increased federal research into other fuels, such as ethanol made from weeds or wood chips instead of corn, as well as the construction of new nuclear power plants, increased use of wind and solar power, and clean coal technologies.
"Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years," the president said. "Breakthroughs on this and other new technologies will help us reach another great goal: to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025."
Democrats quickly took aim at Bush's oil comments. "The Republican Party is addicted to big oil money," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the House Democratic campaign organization. "That's why they gave them $14.5 billion in taxpayer subsidies while cutting $14 billion in student aid for kids going to college."
'We Will Never Surrender to Evil'
Bush also renewed his commitment to "seek the end of tyranny in our world," recalling the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the fight against terror. "Every step toward freedom in the world makes our country safer, and so we will act boldly in freedom's cause," he said.
He also cited a steady increase in the number of democracies around the world. "At the start of 2006, more than half the people of our world live in democratic nations," he said. "And we do not forget the other half -- in places like Syria, Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea, and Iran -- because the demands of justice, and the peace of this world, require their freedom as well."
Bush defended his administration's efforts to combat terrorism. "There is no peace in retreat. And there is no honor in retreat," he said. "By allowing radical Islam to work its will -- by leaving an assaulted world to fend for itself -- we would signal to all that we no longer believe in our own ideals, or even in our own courage. But our enemies and our friends can be certain: The United States will not retreat from the world, and we will never surrender to evil."
With the war in Iraq about to enter its fourth year and more than 2,240 American troops killed, Bush said the nation must not falter in what he called the central front in the war on terror.
"We are helping Iraqis build an inclusive government, so that old resentments will be eased and the insurgency marginalized," he said. "Second, we are continuing reconstruction efforts, and helping the Iraqi government to fight corruption and build a modern economy, so all Iraqis can experience the benefits of freedom. Third, we are striking terrorist targets while we train Iraqi forces that are increasingly capable of defeating the enemy. Iraqis are showing their courage every day, and we are proud to be their allies in the cause of freedom."
Bush paid tribute to Americans fighting in Iraq and to those who lost their lives there. To underscore his point, he read from a letter written by Marine Staff Sgt. Dan Clay, who was killed in Iraq.
"Here is what Dan wrote: 'I know what honor is. It has been an honor to protect and serve all of you. I faced death with the secure knowledge that you would not have to ... ever falter. Don't hesitate to honor and support those of us who have the honor of protecting that which is worth protecting.'"
Bush also noted that democracy is spreading in Egypt, which voted in a multiparty election, as did the Palestinians, though he called on the leaders of Hamas to "recognize Israel, disarm, reject terrorism and work for lasting peace."
"Democracies in the Middle East will not look like our own, because they will reflect the traditions of their own citizens," he said. "Yet liberty is the future of every nation in the Middle East, because liberty is the right and hope of all humanity."
Defending Wiretaps, Touting the Economy
Bush urged Congress to reauthorize the Patriot Act to fight terror at home. He also alluded to the National Security Agency wiretapping controversy that has lowered his poll numbers in recent weeks.
"I have authorized a terrorist surveillance program to aggressively pursue the international communications of suspected al Qaeda operatives and affiliates to and from America," he said. "Previous presidents have used the same constitutional authority I have -- and federal courts have approved the use of that authority.
"Appropriate members of Congress have been kept informed. This terrorist surveillance program has helped prevent terrorist attacks. It remains essential to the security of America. If there are people inside our country who are talking with al Qaeda, we want to know about it -- because we will not sit back and wait to be hit again."
The president also said America's economy "is healthy, and vigorous and growing faster than other major industrialized nations. In the last two-and-a-half years, America has created 4.6 million new jobs -- more than Japan and the European Union combined. Even in the face of higher energy prices and natural disasters, the American people have turned in an economic performance that is the envy of the world."
The president promised to reduce the growth of nonsecurity discretionary spending. "Last year you passed bills that cut this spending," he said. "This year my budget will cut it again, and reduce or eliminate more than 140 programs that are performing poorly or not fulfilling essential priorities. By passing these reforms, we will save the American taxpayer another $14 billion next year -- and stay on track to cut the deficit in half by 2009."
He also addressed the larger challenge of mandatory spending, or entitlements.
"The retirement of the baby boom generation will put unprecedented strains on the federal government. By 2030, spending for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid alone will be almost 60 percent of the entire federal budget. And that will present future Congresses with impossible choices -- staggering tax increases, immense deficits or deep cuts in every category of spending."
Bush announced plans to create a commission to examine the full impact of the boomer retirements on those programs. "This commission should include members of Congress of both parties and offer bipartisan answers," he said. "We need to put aside partisan politics, work together and get this problem solved."
Facing massive budget deficits that may approach or exceed $400 billion this year, Bush has no room for expensive new initiatives.
Democrats sharply criticized Bush's economic proposals after the speech. "Why should we allow this administration to pass down the bill for its reckless spending to our children and grandchildren?" asked Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, who delivered the Democratic response.
War on Terror, Health Care, Education
Bush did not set a timetable for bringing American troops home from Iraq. There are about 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, down from about 160,000 at the time of the January elections.
"In a time of testing, we cannot find security by abandoning our commitments and retreating within our borders," he said. "If we were to leave these vicious attackers alone, they would not leave us alone. They would simply move the battlefield to our own shores."
Bush called for greater federal spending on basic scientific research, and more money for math and science education. On health care, Bush said, "Our government has a responsibility to help provide health care for the poor and the elderly, and we are meeting that responsibility. For all Americans, we must confront the rising cost of care ... strengthen the doctor-patient relationship ... and help people afford the insurance coverage they seek."
Bush began his speech with a tribute to Coretta Scott King, who died today. He called King "a beloved, graceful, courageous woman who called America to its founding ideals and carried on a noble dream."
He also called again for a more civil discussion between political foes -- not an easy prospect, given the upcoming contentious midterm elections, ongoing criticism of the Iraq war and a variety of political scandals roiling Washington.
"We have served America through one of the most consequential periods of our history," Bush said of those gathered, "and it has been my honor to serve with you."