Sounding the themes likely to dominate his 2004 re-election campaign, President George W. Bush said the U.S. remains in a state of war in his State of the Union address Tuesday.
"We have not come all this way — through tragedy, and trial and war — only to falter and leave our work unfinished," the president said during the 54-minute speech to a joint session of Congress and the nation.
The president warned Americans should not be complacent about the threat of terrorist attacks at home. And he said his administration remained committed to combating groups that sponsor or commit acts of terror in the U.S. and abroad.
"We're tracking al Qaeda around the world and nearly two-thirds of their known leaders have now been captured or killed," he said. "Thousands of very skilled and determined military personnel are on the manhunt, going after the remaining killers who hide in cities and caves — and, one by one, we will bring the terrorists to justice."
The president also vigorously defended his administration's decision to invade Iraq, portraying it as an effort that received broad support from the international community and not mentioning the lack of United Nations support for the attack. Bush emphasized the role the U.S. played in re-establishing human rights for millions of Iraqis who lived for decades under Saddam Hussein's oppressive regime.
"Had we failed to act ... Iraq's torture chambers would still be filled with victims, terrified and innocent," he said. "The killing fields of Iraq where hundreds of thousands of men and women and children vanished into the sands would still be known only to the killers."
The president addressed the issue of weapons of mass destruction — the primary justification the administration gave for the war a year ago but which have not been found in Iraq — only briefly.
"We're seeking all the facts. Already the Kay Report identified dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed from the United Nations," he said. "Had we failed to act, the dictator's weapons of mass destruction programs would continue to this day."
The Kay Report was prepared by David Kay, who last year led a team of experts on a search for evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime was producing nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. That report said experts had failed to find any active stocks of such weapons.
On the domestic front, President Bush demanded that the tax cuts implemented last year be made permanent.
"Because you acted to stimulate our economy with tax relief, this economy is strong, and growing stronger," he told members of Congress. "The American people are using their money far better than government would have and you were right to return it."
In the face of record budget deficits, the president said the administration's federal budget for the coming year would limit the growth in discretionary spending to less than 4 percent.
"This will require that Congress focus on priorities, cut wasteful spending and be wise with the people's money," he said. "By doing so, we can cut the deficit in half over the next five years."
Discretionary spending includes government outlays on defense and domestic programs. It does not include spending on homeland security or entitlement programs such as social security.
The president also made several proposals that would have a disproportionate impact on young people, including a plan to allow workers to put their social-security contributions into "personal retirement accounts." He provided no details on how such a program would be funded or how it would function within the existing social-security system. Currently, social-security contributions withheld from paychecks are used to fund those already in retirement.
Turning to social policy, the president indicated strong opposition to gay and lesbian marriages by raising the possibility that a constitutional amendment might be necessary to codify marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman. The issue could play a significant role in the upcoming campaign.
Apparently referring to a recent decision by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts that impelled the state's legislature to allow gay marriages, the president said "activist judges" were imposing their views on marriage against the will of the public.
"On an issue of such great consequence, the people's voice must be heard," he said. "If judges insist on forcing their arbitrary will upon the people, the only alternative left to the people would be the constitutional process. Our nation must defend the sanctity of marriage."
The president also proposed to increase federal funding for schools that drug-test students, though by a relatively modest $23 million. The move could impact millions of students across the nation.
Notably absent from the president's remarks was any mention of his recently announced initiative to launch a manned space mission to Mars. The proposal has proven highly unpopular with the public, according to recent polls.
Overall, the speech cast Bush as a wartime president, dedicated first and foremost to maintaining the nation's security. On several occasions, the president thanked American troops for the role they have played in protecting the country.
"As we gather tonight, hundreds of thousands of American servicemen and women are deployed across the world in the war on terror," he said toward the beginning of his speech. "By bringing hope to the oppressed, and delivering justice to the violent, they are making America more secure."
Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Minority Leader, and Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Senate Minority Leader, delivered the official Democratic response to Bush's speech. The two railed against what they described as the president's failures on both the foreign and domestic fronts.
"He has pursued a go-it-alone foreign policy that leaves us isolated abroad," Pelosi said in a particularly pointed critique of the president's overseas agenda.
Pelosi also questioned the motives for the U.S.-led effort to topple Saddam Hussein.
"The president led us into the Iraq war on unproven assertions," she said.
And Pelosi challenged Bush's assertion that operations in Iraq have received multilateral support from allies abroad. "American taxpayers are bearing almost all the cost, almost $120 billion and rising," she said.
Daschle took aim at the Bush record on the economy, saying that the administration was responsible for the loss of nearly 3 million jobs. And he criticized the president's tax cuts, saying they favored the well-to-do. The middle class' cut has been more than offset by the rising cost of health care, he added.
In addition, at least two of the contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination made appearances on national television networks following the speech.
Sen. John Kerry, who pulled off a surprising victory in the Iowa caucuses Monday night (see "John Kerry Scores Solid Victory In Iowa Caucuses"), accused the president of being out of touch.
"There's a gap here between the world the president describes and the world people are living," he told ABC's Peter Jennings.
"This president is out of touch with the real Americans who are ... trying to make ends meet."