WASHINGTON -- Laying out an optimistic election-year agenda, President Bush called on the American people and Congress last night as "partners in a great enterprise" to boost job-training and health care reforms at home while expanding freedom abroad.
After three tumultuous years as president marked by a horrific terrorist attack, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, a continuing campaign against terror, and bitter fights with congressional Democrats over taxes and judicial nominees, Bush vowed in his annual State of the Union address to keep pressure on adversaries overseas and to pursue activist, conservative policies at home.
"We can go forward with confidence and resolve or we can turn back to the dangerous illusion that terrorists are not plotting and outlaw regimes are no threat to us," Bush declared as he mounted a forceful justification for the war on Iraq, for preserving tax cuts, and for the need to protect marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
"We can press on with economic growth, and reforms in education and Medicare, or we can turn back to the old policies and old divisions," Bush told a joint session of Congress and a national television audience. The country has not come through the tragedy of Sept. 11 and war "only to falter and leave our work unfinished."
Yet Bush avoided the bold policy thrusts of 2002, when he threatened a dramatic expansion of the war on terror by lumping Iraq, Iran and North Korea together as an "axis of evil," or of 2003, when he built a case for a war in Iraq, drawing in part on what aides later acknowledged was inadequately sourced intelligence.
Bush gave his final State of the Union speech before November's elections on a day when much of the nation's attention was focused on his potential Democratic opponents after Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's come-from-behind victory in Monday night's Iowa caucuses.
Avoiding any mention of the Democrats' primary fight, Bush nevertheless sought to present a contrast with his opponents, appearing as a commander in chief who stands above political battles and attempting to draw into common cause an often sharply divided populace and a Congress split by partisanship.
But Bush's language of unity failed to still election-year criticism from Democrats, both congressional and party leaders and those who want to challenge him in November.
In the official Democratic response, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California criticized Bush's "go-it-alone foreign policy that leaves us isolated abroad and that steals the resources we need for education and health care here at home."
Joining Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said, "Instead of borrowing even more money to give more tax breaks to companies so that they can export even more jobs, we propose tax cuts and policies that will strengthen our manufacturing sector and create good jobs at good wages here at home."
`Nation with a mission'
Bush gave no quarter to opponents of the war in Iraq, despite continued instability there, a failure to find weapons of mass destruction and a death toll among American service men and women that reached 501 yesterday.
He said the world without Saddam Hussein in power "is a far better and safer place," and drew loud applause and cheers when he said the people of Iraq are now free. Had the United States not acted, other dictators would be encouraged in their defiance, the United Nations Security Council would have been undermined and Iraq's killing fields "would still be known only to the killers," Bush said.
"Because of American leadership and resolve, the world is changing for the better," he asserted.
Rejecting the idea that the United States should be hamstrung by the lack of an international consensus, Bush said to strong applause that this country will "never seek a permission slip" to defend itself.
Bush blamed continued violence in Iraq on "thugs" and Hussein supporters who he said ran from U.S. troops in battle and now "attack from the shadows." They are being dealt with, he said, "just as surely as we dealt with Saddam Hussein's evil regime."
In an effort to show progress in transforming Iraq, Bush paused in his speech last night to welcome a guest who symbolizes a moderate, Western-leaning new leadership: Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister and current president of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council.
He glossed over the failure to locate any of the nuclear, chemical or biological weapons that he had cited as the main reason for the invasion, instead stressing the discovery of "dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment."
Bush paid tribute to enlisted personnel from all five branches of the U.S. armed services who took part in the Iraq operation and who were seated last night near first lady Laura Bush.
Joining Mrs. Bush was a Maryland veteran of the Iraq war, Air Force Staff Sgt. Clinton W. Smith Jr. of Upper Marlboro.