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29 Jan 2008 07:21
George Bush used his final State of the Union address on Monday night to try to reassert his primacy in American political life and demonstrate his commitment to Republican principles.
But it was impossible to escape comparisons between the Bush of seven years ago, newly arrived from Texas with a reputation as a uniter and with a vision for sweeping change, with the modest proposals put forward by the president on Monday.
With 51 weeks left in his presidency, and a personal approval rating in the low 30s, the night was one of the few remaining moments in the national spotlight for the man overshadowed by the race to choose his successor.
Bush made it clear in a speech lasting nearly an hour that he would resist being cast as a lame-duck president, and would fight hard for Republican goals. He threatened to veto Bills from Congress that included funding for special-interest projects, or earmarks, and warned of the dangers of accelerating US troop withdrawals from Iraq.
But he still had to share the evening with two of his would-be successors: Barack Obama, seated beside Ted Kennedy, who endorsed his campaign earlier on Monday, and Hillary Clinton, who sat beside her one-time rival in the Democratic race, Joe Biden, and Bill Nelson.
Nelson, a Democratic Senator from Florida, is due to endorse Clinton on Tuesday.
The evening began with an awkward moment between the two Democratic frontrunners when it appeared as if Obama turned away or did not see Clinton when she reached out to shake his hand.
John McCain opted to stay behind in Florida to campaign for Tuesday’s primary—and avoid exposure to an unpopular president.
Mindful of his waning presidency, Bush announced none of the sweeping new initiatives that are typically unveiled in the annual address.
Instead, Bush attempted to use his diminishing political capital to allay anxiety about the economy, which has replaced the Iraq war as the issue of most concern to Americans.
Amid his ritualistic assertions that the state of the union was strong, Bush conceded: “Our economy is undergoing a period of uncertainty.”
The centrepiece of Monday night’s address was an appeal to Congress to pass a $150-billion temporary economic stimulus package that would ward off a recession by giving tax rebates to 117-million families.
The Bill, agreed between Bush and the House of Representatives last week, is already facing amendments in the Senate, and Bush called for its passage. “This is a good agreement that will keep our economy growing and our people working and this Congress must pass it as soon as possible.”
The conciliatory tone from Bush was echoed in the official Democratic response. In her statement, the Democratic governor of Kansas, Kathleen Sebelius, urged Bush to build on the bipartisan support for the stimulus package.
“There is a chance, Mr President, in the next 357 days, to get real results and give the American people renewed optimism that their challenges are the top priority,” Sebelius said. “Working together, working hard, committing to results, we can get the job done.”
But the prospects for unity vanished within seconds as Bush moved to his pledge to cut back on pork-barrel spending by Congress, limiting its spending on special-interest projects, known as earmarks. He said he would sign an executive order on Tuesday directing government agencies to disregard earmarks.
Otherwise, Bush used the address to tie up what his officials called “unfinished business” of his presidency: the tax cuts of his first term, which will expire in 2010, and legislation on wire taps without court oversight.
Bush repeated his demands for Congress to pass legislation that would protect telephone companies involved in the surveillance from lawsuits.
On the Iraq war, he used the occasion to remind Americans of the gains achieved during the past year when he ordered an additional 27 000 troops to Iraq. The president spoke on a day when five soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in the northern city of Mosul, but Bush was adamant his strategy was working.
“While the enemy is still dangerous and more work remains, the American and Iraqi surges have achieved results few of us could have imagined just one year ago,” he said.
“Some may deny the surge is working, but among the terrorists there is no doubt.”
Bush went on to issue a stern warning to Iran. “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,” he said.
The speech, which was in the works when Bush made his visit to the Middle East earlier this month, called for a Palestinian state. It also included strong statements on Darfur, and a continued commitment to $30-billion to fight Aids in Africa
Despite Bush’s reluctance to go over his record at length, in many ways, the speech was a reminder of the failures of the Bush presidency.
The ambitious domestic agenda unveiled in previous State of the Union addresses never got off the ground as Bush acknowledged himself on Monday night when he talked about the failed efforts to overhaul social security and America’s immigration laws.—guardian.co.uk Â
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