Keeping focus on fighting terror

President warns against letdown amid successes


The State Of The Union

January 30, 2002|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush laid out three great goals in his address to Congress last night: winning the campaign against terrorism, making Americans safer at home and ending the recession.

But he had another unspoken objective: preventing the nation - and himself and his fellow Republicans-from becoming victims of their recent successes.

With polls showing that voters consider the economy the top issue in this year's congressional elections, Bush sought to redirect public attention to the issue his advisers want to make the focus of this year's campaign: the so far succesful war on terrorism.

The president celebrated U.S. progress against terrorism in Afghanistan and elsewhere in "four short months." But he quickly warned against letting down in the face of a continuing worldwide threat.

"We can't stop short. If we stopped now," he said, "our sense of security would be false and temporary."

His first State of the Union speech, delivered with supreme self-confidence, was heavily focused on foreign policy, in sharp contrast to his initial, domestic-oriented appearance before Congress less than a year ago.

It was not delivered with quite the precision of his address nine days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, which some have called the speech of his life. Bush seemed almost too relaxed in what are by now familiar surroundings, and his talented speechwriters did not provide him with as much eloquence as usual.

Nearly half of the 48-minute appearance was devoted to the problems of fighting terrorism at home and overseas, and the audience of House and Senate members was notably bipartisan in its enthusiastic response.

In an echo of World War II terminology, Bush seemed to foreshadow a new anti-terror effort against "an axis of evil," the governments in North Korea, Iran and Iraq, which, he said, "are arming to threaten the peace of the world."

He also recalled how, in his speech to Congress Sept. 20, he expressed the hope that "life would return to normal."

But the initial successes against terrorism, and the lack of further attacks on the United States, might have made Americans too unconcerned about the problem, he also seemed to be saying.

Bush emphasized the need for Americans to be vigilant about possible terrorism at home, and he fleshed out a plan to increase volunteer efforts aimed at assisting the homeland security effort.

But there was also an important political component behind Bush's rhetoric. His aides have said that keeping the public's attention on fighting terrorism - and away from the economy's troubles - are key to Republican success in the fall elections.

The president's political mastermind, Karl Rove, touched on that point recently when he told the Republican National Committee that the president's handling of the campaign against terrorism would be the focus of the party's effort to win gain control of Congress in November.

Recent public opinion polls underscore that point. They suggest that Bush's exceptional rise in popularity is lifting the prospects of his party's candidates, in spite of clear concern about the floundering economy.

Little about recession

By comparison with his emphasis on the anti-terror campaign, Bush gave surprisingly little attention to the economic recession. That is particularly so in light of the widespread view that he is determined to avoid repeating one of his father's biggest mistakes. The senior Bush's re-election defeat in 1992 was blamed, at least in part, on the perception that he was out of touch with the financial problems of ordinary Americans.

Last night, the president outlined an agenda that included the largest boost in defense spending in two decades, more spending for homeland defense, education initiatives (improving Head Start, early childhood development programs and teacher training), new pension safeguards (his nod to the Enron Corp. scandal, which he did not mention) and an expansion of the Peace Corps as part of increased outreach to the Islamic world.

Bush, who is expected to propose a 9 percent federal budget increase for next year, devoted one sentence to the need for fiscal responsibility. Some Republican conservatives have criticized the administration for not doing more to limit government spending.

When Bush made his first appearance before Congress, 11 months ago, it was "a time of blessing," he said then. With trillions of projected tax dollars to spend, the fight in Washington was over how to spend the supposed windfall.

At that time, Bush pledged to pay down the federal debt, reform Social Security and Medicare, and spend more for education and other priorities, promises that became much more difficult to keep after Sept. 11.

He repeated many of those proposals last night (but not paying off the debt). However, some of the proposals he outlined, such as partial privatization of Social Security, are unlikely to go anywhere now, because the 10-year, $5.6 trillion budget surplus projected last winter is largely gone.

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