WASHINGTON -- President Bush praised Americans last night for doing the "hard work of freedom" in the Persian Gulf and urged them to direct the same spirit and energy to meeting "our toughest challenges at home."
For his third State of the Union address, Mr. Bush abandoned the traditional format of a report on the status of the nation and dwelt instead on his personal definition of what it means to be an American.
"We are resolute and resourceful," he declared before a joint session of Congress. "If we can selflessly confront evil for the sake of good in a land so far away, then surely we can make this land all that it should be."
Devoting about half of his 48-minute speech to the war in the Persian Gulf, the president declared that Americans were "part of something larger than ourselves. . . . We lead the world in facing down a threat to decency and humanity."
While noting that, with few exceptions, the "world now stands as one" against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Mr. Bush said the job of leading this coalition fell inevitably to the United States.
"Only the United States had both the moral standing and the means to back it up," he said. "Let future generations understand the burden and the blessings of freedom.
"Let them say, 'We stood where duty required us to stand.' "
Mr. Bush drew six standing ovations, with the longest and most emotional applause greeting his declaration that no one is "more devoted or committed to the hard work of freedom than every soldier, and sailor, every Marine, airman and Coast Guardsman . . . now serving in the Persian Gulf."
As the ovation of one minute or more died down, Mr. Bush ad-libbed, "What a fitting tribute to them. What a wonderful, fitting tribute to them."
The lawmakers also leaped to their feet when the president declared that Mr. Hussein would not benefit from abusing POWs, and when Mr. Bush recognized Brenda Schwarzkopf, the wife of the Desert Storm commander, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf.
She was seated in the gallery next to first lady Barbara Bush as a symbolic representative of all military families with relatives serving in the gulf.
The presence of Alma Powell, the wife of Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also inspired a standing ovation from the audience, which included her husband.
In his first public reference to the anti-war demonstrators that have massed outside the White House and at various sites across the nation, Mr. Bush noted, "We have heard some dissenting voices here at home -- some, a handful, reckless; most responsible."
But he said the fact that "all the voices have the right to speak out" is one of the defining qualities of freedom for which Americans have fought for more than 200 years.
Although concern about political repression in the Baltics has also been a major U.S. concern, Mr. Bush remarked on it only briefly, asserting his hope that the Soviets would end the crackdown in the Baltics and allow the U.S.-Soviet relationship to continue to strengthen.
He said the Soviets had provided the United States with "representations" that they would withdraw some forces from the rebel republics, reopen a dialogue with the independent leaders and "move away from violence."
"Our objective is to help the Baltic peoples achieve their aspirations, not to punish the Soviet Union," he said, in an apparent reference to his decision to postpone but not cancel a summit meeting with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
"We will maintain our contact with the Soviet leadership to encourage continued commitment to democratization and reform."
The "hard work of freedom" also requires the same sort of commitment to make the most of America, Mr. Bush said in an appeal to individual efforts and resourcefulness rather than dependence on government largess.
As part of this appeal, he returned to the calls for an increase in volunteerism that had been a refrain from the early days of his administration.
But the speech also contained a new emphasis on what Bush aides call individual "empowerment," in which government programs are redesigned to give greater choice and opportunities to their beneficiaries.
The president acknowledged that people in some regions of the country were in "genuine economic distress," but he made only passing reference to the recession, promising that it would be over "soon."
In fact, his legislative program did not include any proposals specifically aimed at helping the nation out of the recession, because Bush aides think it will be over by the time Congress could get any such legislation enacted.
The president had little to say about defense spending, except to note that the success of U.S. troops so far proved that the years of "investment, training and planning" were paying off.
In a bow to the changing world circumstances, though, Mr. Bush said he had decided to refocus former President Ronald Reagan's so-called space-based missile defense system, known as "star wars."