President George W. Bush, standing before Congress one last time, urged Americans to stand confident against gnawing recession fears and be patient with the grinding war in Iraq.
Bush delivered his final State of the Union address before a hostile, Democratic-led Congress eager for the end of his term next January.
With his approval rating near its all-time low, the president lacked the political muscle to push bold ideas, and he did not try. The one possible exception was the economy. He urged lawmakers to approve urgently a $150 billion plan to stave off a recession through tax rebates - negotiated with Democratic and Republican lawmakers - for families and incentives for businesses to invest in new plants and equipment.
“As we meet tonight, our economy is undergoing a period of uncertainty,” Bush said. “And at kitchen tables across our country there is concern about our economic future.”
Since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, the war has been a main topic of Bush’s annual addresses to Congress. He said the buildup of 30,000 US troops and an increase in Iraqi forces “have achieved results few of us could have imagined just one year ago.”
“Some may deny the surge is working,” Bush said, “but among the terrorists there is no doubt. Al Qaida is on the run in Iraq, and this enemy will be defeated.”
Bush announced no troop withdrawals except for a start in the return of the 30,000 sent last year for his “surge” troop buildup. He said Gen. David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, had warned that “too fast a drawdown could result in the `disintegration of the Iraqi Security Forces, Al Qaida-Iraq regaining lost ground, (and) a marked increase in violence.”
Members of Congress: Having come so far and achieved so much, we must not allow this to happen.”
He also prodded Congress to extend a law that allows surveillance of suspected terrorists, renew his education law and approve free-trade pacts with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.
Before Bush arrived, his Democratic would-be successors and their well-wishers clogged the center aisle of the House chamber.
Sen. Barack Obama came first, followed closely by his new patron, Sen. Edward Kennedy, who on Monday endorsed Obama’s attempt to become the nation’s first black president.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, opposing Obama and wanting to be the first female president of the United States, entered the chamber a few minutes later, equally mobbed by well-wishers.
She reached out and shook Kennedy’s hand. Obama, nearby, turned away.
In the Democratic response to the president’s address, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas urged Bush to work with Congress and help the United States regain its global standing damaged by the war. “The last five years have cost us dearly - in lives lost; in thousands of wounded warriors whose futures may never be the same; in challenges not met here at home because our resources were committed elsewhere,” she said. “America’s foreign policy has left us with fewer allies and more enemies.”
The war in Iraq has claimed the lives of 3,940 members of the US military and many times more Iraqis.
The annual State of the Union address normally ranks among the biggest events in the US political calendar, delivered with pomp and ceremony to lawmakers from both chambers and to other powerful Washington officials attending the joint session.
This year’s speech has been overshadowed by the intense Democratic and Republican campaigns to succeed Bush, who is barred by the constitution from seeking a third term. Sen. John McCain, a leading contender for the Republican nomination to succeed Bush, did not even attend the session but stayed in Florida to campaign.
Aides had said Bush would not use Monday night’s address as a summation of his time in office, but he did. He turned to the phrase “over the past seven years” when talking about some of the most-prized efforts of his administration: tax relief, participation in religious charities, his global freedom agenda and increased funding for veterans.
In past years, Bush has used the speech to announce major domestic programs or make foreign policy statements. In his 2002 speech, he declared Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Iran and North Korea to comprise an “axis of evil.” In 2003, he set out the case for war against Iraq.
Since Democrats took control of Congress last year, Bush has struggled to win approval for initiatives. He has used his veto powers to block Democratic plans, however, including efforts to withdraw troops from Iraq and expand a children’s health insurance programme.
The rhetorical device that held the speech together was trust in people - taxpayers, homeowners, medical researchers, doctors and patients, students, workers, energy entrepreneurs and others - to drive their own success and that of the country. The unspoken message: government is not the answer.
On Iraq, Bush said US adversaries have been hit hard, although “they are not yet defeated, and we can still expect tough fighting ahead.”
There are 158,000 US troops in Iraq, a number expected to drop to 135,000 by July. There are 28,000 in Afghanistan, the highest number of the war, which began there in October 2001. The Iraq war began in March 2003. Congress, despite repeated attempts, has been unable to force troop withdrawals or deadlines for pullbacks, and Iraq has receded as an issue in Washington.
On other subjects, Bush said
“This year’s meeting of the North American summit will bring leaders of Mexico and Canada together with Bush at New Orleans, Louisiana, a gesture to the return of the city devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Bush’s administration was roundly criticized for its response to the disaster.
“A new international agreement is necessary to slow, stop, and eventually reverse the growth of greenhouse gases, but to be effective it must be signed by all nations. Bush has avoided climate change commitments that lack developing countries such as China and India, as the 1997 Kyoto Protocol does.
“Congress should provide food aid by allowing the purchase of crops directly from farmers in developing countries ‘so we can build up local agriculture and help break the cycle of famine.” (AP)
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