Bush tries to take charge of policy agenda
WASHINGTON – Hampered by huge budget deficits and an unpopular war, President Bush sought to take charge of the election-year agenda Tuesday by declaring America must break its dependence on Mideast oil and calling for training 70,000 math and science teachers to improve the nation’s competitiveness.”America is addicted to oil which is often imported from unstable parts of the world,” Bush said in his annual State of the Union address. Oil prices are inching toward $70 a barrel, throwing a cloud over the economy and pinching Americans’ pocketbooks.He also was calling for increased federal research into alternative fuels such as ethanol made from weeds or wood chips instead of corn.And he was pushing for construction of new nuclear power plants, increased use of wind and solar power and clean coal technologies. In each year of his presidency, Bush has called for less dependence on foreign oil sources.By targeting only Mideast oil, Bush was ignoring the very largest sources of American petroleum consumption. Imports of oil and refined product from the Persian Gulf makes up less than a fifth of all imports and 11 percent of total consumption, according to Energy Department statistics.The president was addressing the nation from the House chamber before members of the House and Senate, justices of the Supreme Court, foreign dignitaries, Cabinet secretaries and other VIPs.Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, chosen to deliver the response for the Democrats, took Bush on over the soaring national debt, the frustrated effort to rebuild the hurricane-battered Gulf Coast, Medicaid cuts and other issues. On Iraq, Kaine said that Americans were given “inaccurate information about the reasons for invading” and that troops were given body armor that was inadequate.”The federal government should serve the American people,” Kaine said in excerpts released ahead of his speech. “But that mission is frustrated by this administration’s poor choices and bad management. … I want to offer some good news tonight – there is a better way.”The speeches of Bush and Kaine set a tough tone for November’s midterm elections for House and Senate members and most of the nation’s governors.Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the House Democratic campaign organization, criticized Bush’s comment about oil addiction. “The Republican Party is addicted to big oil money,” he said. “That’s why they gave them $14.5 billion in taxpayer subsidies while cutting $14 billion in student aid for kids going to college.”Bush was calling for greater federal spending on basic science research and more money for math and science education. The president was to propose training 70,000 teachers to lead advanced math and science classes in high school, said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Science Committee, who was briefed on the speech.Bush also was to renew his commitment to the central pledge of his inaugural address. “Our nation is committed to an historic, long-term goal – we seek the end of tyranny in our world,” he said. “The future security of America depends on it.”The president discussed troubles at home and abroad and said the nation needed to strengthen its competitiveness in the global economy. “The American economy is pre-eminent but we cannot afford to be complacent,” he said. “In a dynamic world economy, we are seeing new competitors like China and India.”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. Bush was not expected to 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.”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.”Facing massive budget deficits that may approach or exceed $400 billion this year, Bush had no room for expensive, new initiatives.Health care is a priority for both parties, particularly since nearly 46 million Americans lack insurance. Democrats say that in 2005 alone, the number of uninsured grew by nearly a million.Bush was expected to propose greater tax benefits for health saving accounts, the high-deductible health care plan that allows people to contribute money tax-free to 401(k)-like health savings plans, as a way to expand their use.Three years from leaving office, Bush went before the nation as a politically weakened president after the toughest year of his administration. With Americans anxious about the economy, weary of the Iraq war and unhappy about the administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina, Bush’s job approval rating was in the anemic high 30s to low 40s.A majority of Americans fault him on his handling of Iraq, the economy, the budget deficit, immigration, ethics in government, health care and taxes. A Medicare prescription drug program for the elderly, once seen as a boon for Republicans, has left seniors confused and angry.Bush’s address came amid a changing of the guard elsewhere in Washington. Conservative judge Samuel Alito was sworn in as a new Supreme Court justice, replacing Sandra Day O’Connor, who has been a moderate swing vote. The Senate also confirmed Ben Bernanke to be chairman of the Federal Reserve, replacing Alan Greenspan after 18 1/2 years in the influential job.Alito was expected to be present in the House chamber, alongside new Chief Justice John Roberts, another Bush nominee, and Justice Stephen Breyer.The president was expected to address the growing controversy over newly disclosed government spying without warrants in the United States to combat terrorism. Bush contends the surveillance is legal although Republicans and Democrats alike have questioned his authority.Bush also was to press Congress to renew the anti-terrorism law, the USA Patriot Act, set to expire Friday and blocked by lawmakers insisting on privacy safeguards.