WASHINGTON – President Bush used his first State of the Union address Tuesday night to paint a grave and sobering picture of the potential dangers facing the United States and vowed to fight them head-on.
The president appeared resolute as he informed the public there are likely “tens of thousands” of terrorists still at large, that they have fanned out around the globe, that they were found to have diagrams of American nuclear power plants and water facilities and that they are seeking weapons of mass destruction.
“We’ll be deliberate, yet time is not on our side,” Bush declared in his third address to a joint session of Congress. “I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer.” Raising his voice, he thundered: “The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.
Echoing President John F. Kennedy’s call to patriotic service, Bush also called on Americans to give something back to their nation. He asked citizens to commit at least two years or 4,000 hours of their lives to community service.
“If you aren’t sure how to help, I’ve got a good place to start,” he said. “To sustain and extend the best that has emerged in America, I invite you to join the new USA Freedom Corps.”
The Freedom Corps, he said, will respond to crises at home, rebuild communities and extend “American compassion throughout the world.” To help fortify the nation against further terrorist attacks, he asked for retired doctors and nurses to mobilize in emergencies and for volunteers to help fire and police departments.
Bush made clear that the war that seemed so straightforward in Afghanistan is about to get more complicated.
He warned of three regimes in particular – North Korea, Iraq and Iran – that he said must be stopped from developing weapons of mass destruction that could be disseminated to terrorists.
“States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world,” he said.
Vice President Dick Cheney sat behind him, a development notable only because the two men have been kept apart during much of the time since the Sept. 11 attacks. Interior Secretary Gale Norton was absent, to ensure that one Cabinet member would preserve the line of presidential succession should disaster strike the Capitol.
Bush emphasized that he expects other nations to join the United States in the battle against terrorism. He warned that “some governments will be timid in the face of terror. And make no mistake: If they do not act, America will.”
With the nation in recession and Bush presiding over the first federal budget deficit in four years, he did not offer the usual list of spending proposals that mark most State of the Union speeches.
The administration is proposing a huge increase in defense spending – $48 billion in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 – for a total Pentagon budget of $379 billion. If Congress approves, the increase would be the largest in two decades.
Bush also is asking for $37.7 billion for homeland security, almost double the current budget for that post-Sept. 11 program. He said he would focus these efforts on “four key areas: bioterrorism, emergency response, airport and border security, and improved intelligence.”
In an effort to boost the economy, the president pushed Congress to pass tax breaks for businesses and extra relief for the unemployed “in the same spirit of cooperation we have applied in our war on terrorism,” the excerpts said.
Bush addressed the mushrooming Enron debacle delicately. He chose not to point fingers, but to call for stricter accounting practices and corporate disclosure.
The official Democratic Party response to Bush’s address reflected the public’s broad bipartisan support for the war. House of Representatives Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri assured the president and the nation that the country speaks with one voice against terrorism.
“Like generations that came before us, we will pay any price and bear any burden to make sure that this proud nation wins the first war of the 21st century,” Gephardt said, echoing President Kennedy’s inaugural address. Since Sept. 11, he said, “there has been no daylight between us in this war on terrorism. We have met almost every single week and built a bipartisan consensus that is helping America win this war.”
But Gephardt noted growing partisan divisions over domestic issues, intensified in this election year when control of both houses of Congress is up for grabs. The House Democratic leader said Democrats would not necessarily side with Bush on such issues as tax cuts, Social Security, Medicare, overhauling campaign-finance laws and the bankruptcy of Enron.
“I refuse to accept that while we stand shoulder to shoulder on the war, we should stand toe to toe on the economy,” Gephardt said.
The president also is calling for $190 billion over 10 years to subsidize prescription drug costs for senior citizens. Most of that would not take effect for another three years, when his budget planners expect deficits to end.
In the meantime, Bush proposes a first step of spending $77 billion over 10 years to help 3 million low-income senior citizens pay for prescription drugs through Medicare.