Commentary on President Bush's State of the Union 2004 Speech

Tuesday, 20 January 2004

Mr. Speaker, Vice President Cheney, Members of Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow citizens: America this evening is a Nation called to great responsibilities. And we are rising to meet them.

America is indeed a nation that has been blessed with great riches and power, and we are called to great responsibilities. Whether we are fully living up to those responsibilities is an issue to be addressed as we evaluate the president's words.

As we gather tonight, hundreds of thousands of American servicemen and women are deployed across the world in the war on terror. By bringing hope to the oppressed, and delivering justice to the violent, they are making America more secure.

Many of the American service personnel deployed abroad are making the world a safer place, but many, through no fault of their own, but because of both strategic and tactical errors by their leaders, are not. It should also be noted that, despite Bush's statements to the contrary, the so-called "war on terror" is no war at all, but a misguided attempt to address a real threat to world peace--terrorism--through inappropriate means.

Each day, law enforcement personnel and intelligence officers are tracking terrorist threats; analysts are examining airline passenger lists; the men and women of our new Homeland Security Department are patrolling our coasts and borders. And their vigilance is protecting America.

Tracking terrorist threats is exactly the sort of thing law enforcement officials, in conjunction with their counterparts in other nations and with international organizations, should be doing, and they have had many successes. The question must be asked, however: why are terrorists so intent on invading U.S. soil and attacking U.S. citizens? Are some of our country's policies so odious to people in other countries that they would risk their lives, or even voluntarily sacrifice their lives, to harm us? If so, are those policies strategically sound, or even ethical?

Examining airline passenger lists is a problem for innocent travelers and is unlikely to catch terrorists. First, many innocent travelers with names similar to the names of suspected terrorists have been detained by law enforcement personnel, have missed flights, or worse. Second, many peace advocates have been singled out as suspects and harassed by security personnel because of their political views. Third, since terrorists know that their names are likely to be on a watch list, how many of them are likely to use their real names on passenger lists? The increase in airport security in the wake of September 11 makes sense, but some of the policies instituted are ridiculous and serve only to irritate travelers, not provide additional security.

Americans are proving once again to be the hardest working people in the world. The American economy is growing stronger. The tax relief you passed is working.

The American economy is still staggering along more than two years after the official end of the recession. The stock market has rebounded to be sure, but job growth has been almost nonexistent, and rising fuel costs and the international weakness of the dollar are stifling what little economic growth there might be. The tax relief, which benefited the wealthy disproportionately and did absolutely nothing to help the poorest Americans, did put more money into the economy in the third quarter of last fiscal year, but it doesn't seem to have made any long-term improvements to the struggling American economy.

Tonight, Members of Congress can take pride in great works of compassion and reform that skeptics had thought impossible. You are raising the standards of our public schools; and you are giving our senior citizens prescription drug coverage under Medicare.

Despite the rhetoric and the increased testing, public schools have received little support from the federal government, and since almost all the states have budget crises of their own, our children are taking their additional standardized tests in overcrowded, dilapidated classrooms led by underpaid teachers. The prescription drug benefit that Congress passed might be better than nothing (though some would dispute even this), but it falls far short of what needs to be done to help seniors and many others afford health care. I have a friend who is moving back to Canada, in large part because he has serious medical needs that will not be met by the American healthcare system.

We have faced serious challenges together -- and now we face a choice. 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. 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.

The president is attempting to use fear of terrorism as a tactic to frighten Americans into reelecting him. And why not? It's worked before! He used the same tactics in the 2002 midterm elections to great effect, aided by the Democratic party's failure to engage him in serious debate on the issue. In fact, the so-called "outlaw regimes" are no threat to us! North Korea, Libya, Iran, Syria, Cuba, and other countries might be a threat to their own citizens, but they pose no serious threat to the U.S. Bush's attempts to paint the picture any other way suggests either disingenuous political opportunism, paranoia, or both.

We have not come all this way -- through tragedy, and trial, and war -- only to falter and leave our work unfinished. Americans are rising to the tasks of history, and they expect the same of us. In their efforts, their enterprise, and their character, the American people are showing that the state of our Union is confident and strong.

In physics, work is done when an object is moved by a force. If the object moves in the same direction as the force, the work is said to be positive. If the object moves in the direction opposition to that of the force, the work is said to be negative. America has expended a great deal of force over the past two and a half years in an attempt to deal with terrorism, but the evidence suggests that terrorism is flourishing and even growing in places--especially Iraq, where it was virtually nonexistent prior to the U.S. invasion--so the work we are accomplishing is actually negative. We have certainly come through tragedy and trial during the Bush administration's watch, but war was something we chose, first in Afghanistan, where the Taliban's harboring of Al Qaeda operatives provided some justification for our attack, then in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein's reluctant cooperation with U.N. weapons inspectors and the absence of weapons of mass destruction or of a threat to the U.S. or our allies meant that there was no justification for our attack.

Our greatest responsibility is the active defense of the American people. Twenty-eight months have passed since September 11th, 2001 -- over two years without an attack on American soil -- and it is tempting to believe that the danger is behind us. That hope is understandable, comforting -- and false. The killing has continued in Bali, Jakarta, Casablanca, Riyadh, Mombassa, Jerusalem, Istanbul, and Baghdad. The terrorists continue to plot against America and the civilized world. And by our will and courage, this danger will be defeated.

I absolutely disagree with the president's assessment. Our government's greatest responsibility is not the active defense of the American people. The preamble to the U.S. Constitution states: "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." Providing for the common defense is listed fourth among six items, behind unity, justice, and domestic tranquility. Certainly defense is important, but only in an Orwellian world can attacking a nation that poses no threat to us be called defense rather than aggression. It is the habit of established governments, no matter how repressive, to regard their enemies as terrorists, but there is a world of difference between an Iraqi attacking American soldiers--whom he sees as invaders--in Baghdad and someone attacking a nightclub in Bali. By any reasonable definition, terrorism is an attack that specifically targets civilians, perhaps along with soldiers. Of course, many in the Arab world accuse both the U.S. and Israel of targeting civilians, or at least of showing little concern for their welfare when dropping bombs, bulldozing houses, etc. What the president doesn't seem to grasp is that terrorism around the world is not monolithic. A suicide bomber in Jerusalem has a different motivation from a person rigging a land mine in Baghdad, or planting a car bomb in Riyadh, or setting fire to a family planning clinic in Boston. All are acts of violence that must certainly be condemned, but until our leaders understand the various causes of specific acts of terror and begin to address those issues that are legitimate to address, terrorism will continue unabated.

Inside the United States, where the war began, we must continue to give homeland security and law enforcement personnel every tool they need to defend us. And one of those essential tools is the PATRIOT Act, which allows Federal law enforcement to better share information, to track terrorists, to disrupt their cells, and to seize their assets. For years, we have used similar provisions to catch embezzlers and drug traffickers. If these methods are good for hunting criminals, they are even more important for hunting terrorists. Key provisions of the PATRIOT Act are set to expire next year. The terrorist threat will not expire on that schedule. Our law enforcement needs this vital legislation to protect our citizens -- you need to renew the PATRIOT Act.

The funniest moment during the president's speech came when he made the mistake of taking a breath after saying that key provisions of the PATRIOT Act are set to expire next year, at which point many Democrats applauded. The PATRIOT Act does contain some provisions that are necessary for fighting terrorism, especially the creation of systems that will allow intelligence and law enforcement officials communicate better with one another. However, many provisions of the PATRIOT Act do nothing other than strip Americans of their civil liberties. If I want to check out a library book about terrorism, it's none of the government's business, but under the PATRIOT Act, the government can access library records without cause and see what I've been reading. If I want to buy a book about communism, it's none of the government's business, but under the PATRIOT Act, the government can access bookstore records without cause and see what books I've bought (lately I've taken to buying books with cash as a matter of principle). The PATRIOT Act allows "sneak and peek" searches of private property without notification of the owner, and it reduces the already fairly low grounds for obtaining search warrants by removing the necessity of judicial approval in certain cases. The PATRIOT Act is an unpatriotic, un-American piece of legislation that was rushed through Congress without sufficient scrutiny (Americans should be worried that the legislation was apparently already prepared in something close to its final form prior to September 11!). It should be repealed, not renewed, and its provisions that do not violate civil liberties should be reintroduced as separate legislation.

America is on the offensive against the terrorists who started this war. Last March, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a mastermind of September 11th, awoke to find himself in the custody of U.S. and Pakistani authorities. Last August 11th brought the capture of the terrorist Hambali, who was a key player in the attack in Indonesia that killed over 200 people. We are tracking al Qaeda around the world -- and nearly two-thirds of their known leaders have now been captured or killed. Thousands of very skilled and determined military personnel are on a manhunt, going after the remaining killers who hide in cities and caves -- and, one by one, we will bring the terrorists to justice.

The U.S. and other nations have had many successes in arresting terrorist leaders around the world. They should be given fair trials and punished if found guilty. The fact that so many have been taken into custody demonstrates that pursuing terrorists by legal means is preferable to all-out, destructive war, in which the innocent suffer along with the guilty.

As part of the offensive against terror, we are also confronting the regimes that harbor and support terrorists, and could supply them with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. The United States and our allies are determined: We refuse to live in the shadow of this ultimate danger.

Countries should not be allowed to harbor terrorists or others who violate international law, and that applies to the United States as well. Henry Kissinger, for one, has been accused of violations of international law in regard to his involvement in the overthrow of democratically elected Salvador Allende in Chile on September 11, 1973. Until America is willing to allow our citizens to stand trial for violations of international law, we have no right to demand that other countries do so. And if providing nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons to those who would use them against their enemies is a crime, then we need to ask ourselves from whom Saddam Hussein got the chemical and biological weapons that he had before the first Gulf War. The answer, of course, is that he got them from the U.S. The international community will not tolerate the double standard that the U.S. and its allies try to live by. If nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons are abhorrent--and they are--then no country should have them. The U.S. should begin to destroy its weapons of mass destruction unilaterally and invite both our friends and our adversaries to do the same.

The first to see our determination were the Taliban, who made Afghanistan the primary training base of al Qaeda killers. As of this month, that country has a new constitution, guaranteeing free elections and full participation by women. Businesses are opening, health care centers are being established, and the boys and girls of Afghanistan are back in school. With help from the new Afghan Army, our coalition is leading aggressive raids against surviving members of the Taliban and al Qaeda. The men and women of Afghanistan are building a nation that is free, and proud, and fighting terror -- and America is honored to be their friend.

If only this were true. The Taliban were a repressive government that needed to be overthrown, not least because they harbored members of Al Qaeda. However, since the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban, Afghanistan has sunk into a morass of lawlessness similar to the time before the Taliban came to power. Warlords again exercise absolute control over large regions of the country, and few outside Kabul have the privileges that the president mentioned in his speech. If America had focused on setting Afghanistan on the road to democracy, prosperity, and freedom rather than moving on to the war on Iraq, perhaps the country as a whole would be closer now to stability. Unfortunately, the Bush administration seems unable to focus on a single foreign policy initiative and see it through to completion before losing focus and starting on something else. Just as we shifted our attention away from Afghanistan before we should have, now we are poised to shift our attention away from Iraq at the end of June, just so the president can claim that we have established a free, democratic society there in time for the November elections in the U.S.

Since we last met in this chamber, combat forces of the United States, Great Britain, Australia, Poland, and other countries enforced the demands of the United Nations, ended the rule of Saddam Hussein -- and the people of Iraq are free. Having broken the Baathist regime, we face a remnant of violent Saddam supporters. Men who ran away from our troops in battle are now dispersed and attack from the shadows.

These killers, joined by foreign terrorists, are a serious, continuing danger. Yet we are making progress against them. The once all-powerful ruler of Iraq was found in a hole, and now sits in a prison cell. Of the top 55 officials of the former regime, we have captured or killed 45. Our forces are on the offensive, leading over 1,600 patrols a day, and conducting an average of 180 raids every week. We are dealing with these thugs in Iraq, just as surely as we dealt with Saddam Hussein's evil regime.

The president falsely implies that the United Nations sanctioned the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when nothing could be farther from the truth. The U.N. actively opposed the invasion, and as a result, the U.S. has borne the brunt of both the costs ($120 billion so far) and the casualties (over 500 deaths so far). Bush suggests that those who are now fighting American troops without homemade bombs and rocket propelled grenades are cowards who "ran away from our troops in battle," rather than soldiers who performed a strategic retreat. Those who oppose the American presence in Iraq include Baathist party loyalists, Sunnis, Shiites, and a few foreign fighters--in other words, a broad mix of people. It seems that every time one Iraqi fighter is captured or killed, two more take his place. Until the U.S. pulls out of Iraq, hopefully to be replaced by U.N. peacekeepers, Americans and Iraqis will continue to die needlessly, and ordinary Americans will continue paying the bill.

The work of building a new Iraq is hard, and it is right. And America has always been willing to do what it takes for what is right. Last January, Iraq's only law was the whim of one brutal man. Today our coalition is working with the Iraqi Governing Council to draft a basic law, with a bill of rights. We are working with Iraqis and the United Nations to prepare for a transition to full Iraqi sovereignty by the end of June. As democracy takes hold in Iraq, the enemies of freedom will do all in their power to spread violence and fear. They are trying to shake the will of our country and our friends -- but the United States of America will never be intimidated by thugs and assassins. The killers will fail, and the Iraqi people will live in freedom.

Month by month, Iraqis are assuming more responsibility for their own security and their own future. And tonight we are honored to welcome one of Iraq's most respected leaders: the current President of the Iraqi Governing Council, Adnan Pachachi. Sir, America stands with you and the Iraqi people as you build a free and peaceful nation.

The president is hedging his bet by prediction increasing violence as Iraqi elections approach. If there is a lot of violence, it will prove that democracy is taking hold and that terrorists are desperate to destroy it. On the other hand, if there is little violence, it will prove that the people are embracing democracy. In other words, regardless of the results, the U.S. will have been successful. It remains to be seen whether the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, which has little legitimacy among ordinary Iraqis, will be able to draft a constitution that the people will accept.

Because of American leadership and resolve, the world is changing for the better. Last month, the leader of Libya voluntarily pledged to disclose and dismantle all of his regime's weapons of mass destruction programs, including a uranium enrichment project for nuclear weapons. Colonel Qadhafi correctly judged that his country would be better off, and far more secure, without weapons of mass murder. Nine months of intense negotiations involving the United States and Great Britain succeeded with Libya, while 12 years of diplomacy with Iraq did not. And one reason is clear: For diplomacy to be effective, words must be credible -- and no one can now doubt the word of America.

Since Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, it seems that twelve years of negotiation did succeed in that regard. Apparently, however, Bush's lust for conquest and revenge for his father's humiliation (as the president sees it) could only be satisfied with war. The president implies that Qadhafi came around because of nine months of negotiations with the U.S. and Britain, but the truth is that Libya had been trying for years to reach a settlement with Britain and France regarding airplanes that were bombed. Was Qadhafi influenced by what happened to Saddam Hussein? Quite possibly. That doesn't justify the unprovoked attack on Iraq, however.

Different threats require different strategies. Along with nations in the region, we are insisting that North Korea eliminate its nuclear program. America and the international community are demanding that Iran meet its commitments and not develop nuclear weapons. America is committed to keeping the world's most dangerous weapons out of the hands of the world's most dangerous regimes.

Here we encounter what is left of Bush's Axis of Evil, and it seems that the U.S., after attacking the weakest member of the group, has decided that it's not worth the risk of attacking the others. It should be remembered that several months ago an invasion of either Iran or Syria was a very real possibility, but then the war in Iraq began to bog down and public opinion turned, and the invasion because politically unpalatable. Again, why is it OK for the U.S. and its allies to have weapons of mass destruction but other countries can't? The U.S. remains the only nation ever to have used nuclear weapons in war, and Bush is proposing to developing low-yield nuclear weapons to use in future wars. America supplied Saddam Hussein with the biological and chemical weapons that he used on Iran and the Kurds. I agree that WMDs should be kept out of the hands of the world's most dangerous regimes, including ours.

When I came to this rostrum on September 20th, 2001, I brought the police shield of a fallen officer, my reminder of lives that ended, and a task that does not end. I gave to you and to all Americans my complete commitment to securing our country and defeating our enemies. And this pledge, given by one, has been kept by many. You in the Congress have provided the resources for our defense, and cast the difficult votes of war and peace. Our closest allies have been unwavering. America's intelligence personnel and diplomats have been skilled and tireless.

Opposition to the war was strong in the U.S. and much stronger in Britain, Italy, Spain, and Australia, our strongest supporters, so it is hardly accurate to say that those countries' support has been unwavering.

And the men and women of the American military -- they have taken the hardest duty. We have seen their skill and courage in armored charges, and midnight raids, and lonely hours on faithful watch. We have seen the joy when they return, and felt the sorrow when one is lost. I have had the honor of meeting our servicemen and women at many posts, from the deck of a carrier in the Pacific, to a mess hall in Baghdad. Many of our troops are listening tonight. And I want you and your families to know: America is proud of you. And my Administration, and this Congress, will give you the resources you need to fight and win the war on terror.

American soldiers have carried the heaviest load, and they and their families have paid the highest price, in this conflict. If we really support our troops, we will demand their swift return and a total withdrawal from Iraq at the earliest possible moment consistent with the safety of the people of Iraq. Specifically, American troops should be replaced with U.N. peacekeepers as soon as possible.

I know that some people question if America is really in a war at all. They view terrorism more as a crime -- a problem to be solved mainly with law enforcement and indictments. After the World Trade Center was first attacked in 1993, some of the guilty were indicted, tried, convicted, and sent to prison. But the matter was not settled. The terrorists were still training and plotting in other nations, and drawing up more ambitious plans. After the chaos and carnage of September 11th, it is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers. The terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States -- and war is what they got.

America is not really in a war at all, except of its own making, and terrorism is a crime. Crime is fought with law enforcement, indictments, arrests, trials, and incarceration. The president is right: it's not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers. We must pursue them, capture them, and put them behind bars, in a manner consistent with U.S. and international law. Bombing innocent civilians does not promote international justice but in fact increases terrorism. Terror must be fought not primarily with bombs and tanks and bullets but by addressing the root causes of terrorism: poverty, hopelessness, and injustice.

Some in this chamber, and in our country, did not support the liberation of Iraq. Objections to war often come from principled motives. But let us be candid about the consequences of leaving Saddam Hussein in power. We are seeking all the facts -- already the Kay Report identified dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed from the United Nations. Had we failed to act, the dictator's weapons of mass destruction programs would continue to this day. Had we failed to act, Security Council resolutions on Iraq would have been revealed as empty threats, weakening the United Nations and encouraging defiance by dictators around the world. Iraq's torture chambers would still be filled with victims -- terrified and innocent. The killing fields of Iraq -- where hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children vanished into the sands -- would still be known only to the killers. For all who love freedom and peace, the world without Saddam Hussein's regime is a better and safer place.

In Bush's last State of the Union address, as well as in his War Speech just prior to the invasion of Iraq, the president claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction--not weapons programs, actual weapons. "We know where they are," Secretary of Defense (War) Donald Rumsfeld said. "We have satellite images of them," Secretary of State Colin Powell said. "We have evidence that they tried to buy uranium from Africa," President Bush said. Now that it is obvious that lies were told to justify the invasion, the president changes his rhetoric, hoping that no one will notice, but we will and we have. Our actions, not those of Saddam Hussein, have weakened the United Nations by proclaiming that the U.S. is above international law (our opposition to the International Criminal Court also asserts our right to thumb our nose at the laws we expect others to follow). Saddam Hussein was a bad man who needed to be driven from office, but we chose the wrong way to go about it. The world is not a safer place because of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but a more dangerous place.

Some critics have said our duties in Iraq must be internationalized. This particular criticism is hard to explain to our partners in Britain, Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Italy, Spain, Poland, Denmark, Hungary, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania, the Netherlands, Norway, El Salvador, and the 17 other countries that have committed troops to Iraq. As we debate at home, we must never ignore the vital contributions of our international partners, or dismiss their sacrifices. From the beginning, America has sought international support for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we have gained much support. There is a difference, however, between leading a coalition of many nations, and submitting to the objections of a few. America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our people.

The few troops or support personnel supplied by the vast majority of these countries, most of whom had to be bribed or threatened, is not the same as international support through the U.N. As proof, look which country is carrying the bulk of the debt. The U.S. has spent about $120 billion so far, with much more to come, while other countries have ponied up only a few billion dollars.

I'm sure the president thinks that his last sentence will make a good sound bite, but it's a misrepresentation of the truth. We did not go to war in Iraq to defend the security of our people but rather to seek revenge for the first Gulf War and to implement the imperialistic goals of that group of people in the administration known as the neocons. International law agrees that nations do not need the permission of the U.N. to defend themselves, but they do need its permission to launch an unprovoked attack. The judgment of the U.N. was that Iraq posed no threat to its neighbors, much less to the U.S., and that inspections were working. The unsuccessful search for WMDs demonstrates that France and Germany were right and that the U.S. was wrong.

We also hear doubts that democracy is a realistic goal for the greater Middle East, where freedom is rare. Yet it is mistaken, and condescending, to assume that whole cultures and great religions are incompatible with liberty and self-government. I believe that God has planted in every heart the desire to live in freedom. And even when that desire is crushed by tyranny for decades, it will rise again.

As long as the Middle East remains a place of tyranny, despair, and anger, it will continue to produce men and movements that threaten the safety of America and our friends. So America is pursuing a forward strategy of freedom in the greater Middle East. We will challenge the enemies of reform, confront the allies of terror, and expect a higher standard from our friends. To cut through the barriers of hateful propaganda, the Voice of America and other broadcast services are expanding their programming in Arabic and Persian -- and soon, a new television service will begin providing reliable news and information across the region. I will send you a proposal to double the budget of the National Endowment for Democracy, and to focus its new work on the development of free elections, free markets, free press, and free labor unions in the Middle East. And above all, we will finish the historic work of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, so those nations can light the way for others, and help transform a troubled part of the world.

Although the goal of promoting democracy and human rights is a worthy one, it is doubtful that countering one form of propaganda with another form will be very effective. As long as the U.S. continues to support repressive regimes led by dictators, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the common people in those countries will hate us. We would be better off strategically to support a nation like Iran, which at least has elections that are somewhat free, while urging them to provide their citizens with basic civil liberties, including freedom of speech and religion. We cannot force democracy on people by war. Democracy is something that they must want and be willing to fight for. The Iranian Revolution took place without any outside help. Democratic revolutions must be allowed to occur either suddenly or gradually, without excessive external pressure, or else they will not be successful.

America is a Nation with a mission -- and that mission comes from our most basic beliefs. We have no desire to dominate, no ambitions of empire. Our aim is a democratic peace -- a peace founded upon the dignity and rights of every man and woman. America acts in this cause with friends and allies at our side, yet we understand our special calling: This great Republic will lead the cause of freedom.

Much of the world believes that America wants to dominate them and is intent on establishing an empire. We have military bases in countries around the globe, and we export our version of capitalism through institutions such as the World Bank, which many see as a U.S. surrogate. If we truly believe in freedom and human rights, we need to withdraw our forces from many of the countries where they are now stationed and begin working in earnest with the U.N. to bring peace and liberty to the world.

In these last three years, adversity has also revealed the fundamental strengths of the American economy. We have come through recession, and terrorist attack, and corporate scandals, and the uncertainties of war. And because you acted to stimulate our economy with tax relief, this economy is strong, and growing stronger.

The fact that the president spent more than half of his speech on foreign policy indicates that he knows that his domestic record has been abysmal. We have come through recession, it's true, but the economy is far from strong. The job growth last month was only 1,000. Over the past three years, the U.S. has lost about three million jobs.

You have doubled the child tax credit from $500 to $1,000, reduced the marriage penalty, begun to phase out the death tax, reduced taxes on capital gains and stock dividends, cut taxes on small businesses, and you have lowered taxes for every American who pays income taxes.

Increasing the child tax credit was good, although more drastic changes to the tax code, such as eliminating income tax for every family of four that makes less that $50,000 would be even better. The so-called death tax is actually the inheritance tax that children of millionaires used to have to pay to the government. This revision to the tax law is yet another indication of Bush's favoritism toward the rich. Notice that the president says that taxes have been lowered "for every American who pays income taxes." That means that the poorest among us, those who earn so little that they pay no income tax, have received no relief at all. The president promised to work for a bill that would increase the earned income exemption for the poor, but he has failed to push the legislation through Congress.

Americans took those dollars and put them to work, driving this economy forward. The pace of economic growth in the third quarter of 2003 was the fastest in nearly 20 years. New home construction: the highest in almost 20 years. Home ownership rates: the highest ever. Manufacturing activity is increasing. Inflation is low. Interest rates are low. Exports are growing. Productivity is high. And jobs are on the rise.

These numbers confirm that the American people are using their money far better than government would have -- and you were right to return it.

Congress didn't return money to the American people, it gave them money that it didn't have. The result is a swing from large budget surpluses at the end of the Clinton era to gigantic, half-trillion dollar budget deficits under Bush. There is no excuse for this fiscal profligacy.

America's growing economy is also a changing economy. As technology transforms the way almost every job is done, America becomes more productive, and workers need new skills. Much of our job growth will be found in high-skilled fields like health care and biotechnology. So we must respond by helping more Americans gain the skills to find good jobs in our new economy.

To say that America's economy is changing is another way of saying that manufacturing, textile, and other jobs are going overseas. I'm not necessarily opposed to that, since I view an unemployed Chinese citizen as just in need of a job as an unemployed American. However, because our trade policies do not ensure that countries with which we trade enforce minimum wages, offer basic worker benefits, or protect the environment, they are detrimental to human dignity and progress.

All skills begin with the basics of reading and math, which are supposed to be learned in the early grades of our schools. Yet for too long, for too many children, those skills were never mastered. By passing the No Child Left Behind Act, you have made the expectation of literacy the law of our country. We are providing more funding for our schools -- a 36 percent increase since 2001. We are requiring higher standards. We are regularly testing every child on the fundamentals. We are reporting results to parents, and making sure they have better options when schools are not performing. We are making progress toward excellence for every child.

But the status quo always has defenders. Some want to undermine the No Child Left Behind Act by weakening standards and accountability. Yet the results we require are really a matter of common sense: We expect third graders to read and do math at third grade level -- and that is not asking too much. Testing is the only way to identify and help students who are falling behind.

This Nation will not go back to the days of simply shuffling children along from grade to grade without them learning the basics. I refuse to give up on any child -- and the No Child Left Behind Act is opening the door of opportunity to all of America's children.

Testing is not the be-all and end-all of education reform, and in many ways it is detrimental. Too much emphasis on standardized tests leads principals to insist that teachers focus almost exclusively on the subject matter included on the test, so students are in danger of receiving a homogenized, average education, not a challenging, exceptional education. Furthermore, the federal government has failed to live up to its obligations to states and local school districts, so few actual improvements have occurred in our children's education.

At the same time, we must ensure that older students and adults can gain the skills they need to find work now. Many of the fastest-growing occupations require strong math and science preparation, and training beyond the high school level. So tonight I propose a series of measures called Jobs for the 21st Century. This program will provide extra help to middle- and high school students who fall behind in reading and math, expand Advanced Placement programs in low-income schools, and invite math and science professionals from the private sector to teach part-time in our high schools. I propose larger Pell Grants for students who prepare for college with demanding courses in high school. I propose increasing our support for America's fine community colleges, so they can train workers for the industries that are creating the most new jobs. By all these actions, we will help more and more Americans to join in the growing prosperity of our country.

Additional tutoring in reading and math is a good idea if it is fully funded. Additional money for Pell Grants is especially welcome. These are very modest initiatives, but they are steps in the right direction.

Job training is important, and so is job creation. We must continue to pursue an aggressive, pro-growth economic agenda.

This is a nice platitude--what's the specific proposal?

Congress has some unfinished business on the issue of taxes. The tax reductions you passed are set to expire. Unless you act, the unfair tax on marriage will go back up. Unless you act, millions of families will be charged $300 more in Federal taxes for every child. Unless you act, small businesses will pay higher taxes. Unless you act, the death tax will eventually come back to life. Unless you act, Americans face a tax increase. What the Congress has given, the Congress should not take away: For the sake of job growth, the tax cuts you passed should be permanent.

Again, the Democrats clapped after the first sentence. Bush's tax reductions unfairly benefited the rich and should be rolled back. Tax cuts for those who need them most are appropriate. Cuts for the rich are not.

Our agenda for jobs and growth must help small business owners and employees with relief from needless Federal regulation, and protect them from junk and frivolous lawsuits. Consumers and businesses need reliable supplies of energy to make our economy run -- so I urge you to pass legislation to modernize our electricity system, promote conservation, and make America less dependent on foreign sources of energy. My Administration is promoting free and fair trade, to open up new markets for America's entrepreneurs, and manufacturers, and farmers, and to create jobs for America's workers. Younger workers should have the opportunity to build a nest egg by saving part of their Social Security taxes in a personal retirement account. We should make the Social Security system a source of ownership for the American people.

In yet another nod to the rich, the president is attempting to bar claimants from seeking redress for injuries in court. Yes, some lawsuits are frivolous, but the proper response to them is for judges to throw them out before they go to trial.

The rhetoric about "reliable supplies of energy" is code for drilling for oil on Alaska's north shore, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and nearby. The president is not serious about promoting conservation, or else he would have supported legislation to improve mileage standards on cars, trucks, and SUVs. America should definitely be less dependent upon foreign sources of energy, but the answer is not more drilling but more investment in renewable source of energy.

The president's comments on free trade are an oblique reference to the Free Trade of the Americas Act, a law that will benefit large companies by allowing them to hire cheap foreign laborers without providing minimal benefits or ensuring environmental protection, much like NAFTA. Such free trade agreements do not benefit workers in either America or elsewhere.

The plan to privatize a portion of Social Security is dangerous, especially in light of what the stock market has done since Bush took office. After three years, the Dow Jones average is in virtually the same place as when he took the oath of office, and for most of the time the Dow has been down. If people want to invest extra money in the stock market, that's fine, but Social Security is not a pension plan. It is a system whereby today's workers support today's retirees. Taking money from Social Security will only harm current retirees.

And we should limit the burden of government on this economy by acting as good stewards of taxpayer dollars. In two weeks, I will send you a budget that funds the war, protects the homeland, and meets important domestic needs, while limiting the growth in discretionary spending to less than four percent. This will require that Congress focus on priorities, cut wasteful spending, and be wise with the people's money. By doing so, we can cut the deficit in half over the next five years.

As noted above, President Bush has turned large surpluses into record deficits, so his attempt to paint himself as a budget cutter is unconvincing. Where he thinks the money will come from to plug the hole in the deficit is unclear, since he wants to maintain the large tax cuts and increased military spending of the past three years. Cutting the deficit in half over the next five years is insufficient. We need to restore the revenue we've lost under this president and get rid of, or reallocate, the increases in spending. In particular, we need to give up our imperial ambitions, cut our defense spending substantially, and start using some of the money we've saved (after balancing the budget) to fund schools, improve roads and bridges, and strengthen the electrical grid, among other domestic items.

Tonight I also ask you to reform our immigration laws, so they reflect our values and benefit our economy. I propose a new temporary worker program to match willing foreign workers with willing employers, when no Americans can be found to fill the job. This reform will be good for our economy -- because employers will find needed workers in an honest and orderly system. A temporary worker program will help protect our homeland -- allowing border patrol and law enforcement to focus on true threats to our national security. I oppose amnesty, because it would encourage further illegal immigration, and unfairly reward those who break our laws. My temporary worker program will preserve the citizenship path for those who respect the law, while bringing millions of hardworking men and women out from the shadows of American life.

Since Bush has opposed immigration reform for the past three years, his foray into this area is a pretty obvious attempt to woo Hispanic voters. Nevertheless, the idea has merit, but it doesn't go far enough. A temporary worker program is good, but a general amnesty and laws allowing people who want to live and work in the U.S. the legal right to do so would be better.

Our Nation's health care system, like our economy, is also in a time of change. Amazing medical technologies are improving and saving lives. This dramatic progress has brought its own challenge, in the rising costs of medical care and health insurance. Members of Congress, we must work together to help control those costs and extend the benefits of modern medicine throughout our country.

Meeting these goals requires bipartisan effort -- and two months ago, you showed the way. By strengthening Medicare and adding a prescription drug benefit, you kept a basic commitment to our seniors: You are giving them the modern medicine they deserve.

Starting this year, under the law you passed, seniors can choose to receive a drug discount card, saving them 10 to 25 percent off the retail price of most prescription drugs -- and millions of low-income seniors can get an additional $600 to buy medicine. Beginning next year, seniors will have new coverage for preventive screenings against diabetes and heart disease, and seniors just entering Medicare can receive wellness exams.

In January of 2006, seniors can get prescription drug coverage under Medicare. For a monthly premium of about $35, most seniors who do not have that coverage today can expect to see their drug bills cut roughly in half. Under this reform, senior citizens will be able to keep their Medicare just as it is, or they can choose a Medicare plan that fits them best -- just as you, as Members of Congress, can choose an insurance plan that meets your needs. And starting this year, millions of Americans will be able to save money tax-free for their medical expenses, in a health savings account.

I signed this measure proudly, and any attempt to limit the choices of our seniors, or to take away their prescription drug coverage under Medicare, will meet my veto.

On the critical issue of health care, our goal is to ensure that Americans can choose and afford private health care coverage that best fits their individual needs. To make insurance more affordable, Congress must act to address rapidly rising health care costs. Small businesses should be able to band together and negotiate for lower insurance rates, so they can cover more workers with health insurance -- I urge you to pass Association Health Plans. I ask you to give lower-income Americans a refundable tax credit that would allow millions to buy their own basic health insurance. By computerizing health records, we can avoid dangerous medical mistakes, reduce costs, and improve care. To protect the doctor-patient relationship, and keep good doctors doing good work, we must eliminate wasteful and frivolous medical lawsuits. And tonight I propose that individuals who buy catastrophic health care coverage, as part of our new health savings accounts, be allowed to deduct 100 percent of the premiums from their taxes.

A government-run health care system is the wrong prescription. By keeping costs under control, expanding access, and helping more Americans afford coverage, we will preserve the system of private medicine that makes America's health care the best in the world.

It's amazing that we live in a country with the most advanced medical facilities, yet so many of our citizens have no access to decent medical care. Medical care is a basic human right, and every industrialized country except the U.S. seems to recognize this. Health care is not just for the rich, nor is it only for those with good jobs. Those who work for themselves, those who are unemployed, and those who can't afford the high premiums of typical health insurance are entitled to health care. Bill Clinton learned that a complex, convoluted health care system is not what people want. The only acceptable solution is universal health care, similar to that offered in Canada and in many other places. Anything less than full coverage for every American is a goal unworthy of a great country.

We are living in a time of great change -- in our world, in our economy, and in science and medicine. Yet some things endure -- courage and compassion, reverence and integrity, respect for differences of faith and race. The values we try to live by never change. And they are instilled in us by fundamental institutions, such as families, and schools, and religious congregations. These institutions -- the unseen pillars of civilization -- must remain strong in America, and we will defend them.

We must stand with our families to help them raise healthy, responsible children. And when it comes to helping children make right choices, there is work for all of us to do.

One of the worst decisions our children can make is to gamble their lives and futures on drugs. Our government is helping parents confront this problem, with aggressive education, treatment, and law enforcement. Drug use in high school has declined by 11 percent over the past two years. Four hundred thousand fewer young people are using illegal drugs than in the year 2001. In my budget, I have proposed new funding to continue our aggressive, community-based strategy to reduce demand for illegal drugs. Drug testing in our schools has proven to be an effective part of this effort. So tonight I propose an additional $23 million for schools that want to use drug testing as a tool to save children's lives. The aim here is not to punish children, but to send them this message: We love you, and we don't want to lose you.

I'm hesitant to believe the claim that drug use in high school has declined 11 percent over the past two years, but if it's true, that's a good trend. Programs in the schools to help reduce drug use are welcome, and additional drug testing may be appropriate, though care needs to be taken to ensure student privacy and to avoid false positives.

To help children make right choices, they need good examples. Athletics play such an important role in our society, but, unfortunately, some in professional sports are not setting much of an example. The use of performance-enhancing drugs like steroids in baseball, football, and other sports is dangerous, and it sends the wrong message -- that there are shortcuts to accomplishment, and that performance is more important than character. So tonight I call on team owners, union representatives, coaches, and players to take the lead, to send the right signal, to get tough, and to get rid of steroids now.

Professional athletes should set a good example for children and teenagers, as well as for younger players, and stop the use of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs.

To encourage right choices, we must be willing to confront the dangers young people face -- even when they are difficult to talk about. Each year, about three million teenagers contract sexually transmitted diseases that can harm them, or kill them, or prevent them from ever becoming parents. In my budget, I propose a grassroots campaign to help inform families about these medical risks. We will double Federal funding for abstinence programs, so schools can teach this fact of life: Abstinence for young people is the only certain way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases. Decisions children make now can affect their health and character for the rest of their lives. All of us -- parents, schools, government -- must work together to counter the negative influence of the culture, and to send the right messages to our children.

Abstinence is the best way to avoid STDs, but it should be taught as part of a comprehensive sexual education curriculum that includes other information, especially regarding condom use for people who will not practice abstinence. Teaching abstinence alone might have the unwanted effect of actually increasing STDs. The primary goal in public schools should be to reduce the risk of disease, not promote one particular view of sexual morality. The latter is best left to parents and religious institutions.

A strong America must also value the institution of marriage. I believe we should respect individuals as we take a principled stand for one of the most fundamental, enduring institutions of our civilization. Congress has already taken a stand on this issue by passing the Defense of Marriage Act, signed in 1996 by President Clinton. That statute protects marriage under Federal law as the union of a man and a woman, and declares that one state may not redefine marriage for other states. Activist judges, however, have begun redefining marriage by court order, without regard for the will of the people and their elected representatives. On an issue of such great consequence, the people's voice must be heard. If judges insist on forcing their arbitrary will upon the people, the only alternative left to the people would be the constitutional process. Our Nation must defend the sanctity of marriage.

The outcome of this debate is important -- and so is the way we conduct it. The same moral tradition that defines marriage also teaches that each individual has dignity and value in God's sight.

The so-called activist judges have merely ruled that gay couples have the same rights as straight couples. Since gay couples can already live together without the benefit of marriage, it is unclear to me how allowing them to marry will harm the institution of marriage--can an institution really be harmed? Prohibiting gays from marrying discriminates against them, since marriage provides a number of valuable and desirable legal benefits regarding inheritance, child custody, and insurance, to name a few. Of course, many gay couples also want to make a public statement about their commitment to one another, in the same way as straight couples do. The Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional, because it attempts to overturn the Full Faith and Credit Clause by legislation. Gay marriage will happen, and straight couples will have to learn to live with it. Some religious groups will oppose it, and others will support it, but it should be a matter of choice. One person's idea of morality is not binding on another, and people should not attempt to force their views on others by means of legislation or changes to the Constitution. The Constitution should not be amended to define marriage. Marriage is either sanctified or not in and of itself, and no law will make a difference one way or the other.

It is also important to strengthen our communities by unleashing the compassion of America's religious institutions. Religious charities of every creed are doing some of the most vital work in our country -- mentoring children, feeding the hungry, taking the hand of the lonely. Yet government has often denied social service grants and contracts to these groups, just because they have a cross or Star of David or crescent on the wall. By Executive Order, I have opened billions of dollars in grant money to competition that includes faith-based charities. Tonight I ask you to codify this into law, so people of faith can know that the law will never discriminate against them again.

Religious organizations do tremendous work in many difference areas, but because they are allowed to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion, they should not receive federal funds, unless they are willing to waive their right to discriminate. One constitutionally and ethically valid way for a religious group to receive government funds is to set up a separate 501(c)(3) organization for the specific service. As long as that organization observes all of the federal employment guidelines regarding nondiscrimination, it is free to receive government funds.

In the past, we have worked together to bring mentors to the children of prisoners, and provide treatment for the addicted, and help for the homeless. Tonight I ask you to consider another group of Americans in need of help. This year, some 600,000 inmates will be released from prison back into society. We know from long experience that if they can't find work, or a home, or help, they are much more likely to commit more crimes and return to prison. So tonight, I propose a four-year, $300 million Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative to expand job training and placement services, to provide transitional housing, and to help newly released prisoners get mentoring, including from faith-based groups. America is the land of the second chance -- and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.

Setting aside money to help reintegrate prisoners into society is a great idea. I have several other ideas along the same lines. First, do away with mandatory sentencing, especially the ridiculous "three strikes" laws, which compel judges to sentence people to specific amounts of jail time regardless of the circumstances. Second, send illegal drug users to treatment facilities rather than jail. Third, reform laws regarding cocaine and crack so that the sentences are not so disparate. Fourth, transform prisons into places where the goal is reform. With such reforms, the prison population will shrink, and hopefully the recidivism rate will decrease as well.

For all Americans, the last three years have brought tests we did not ask for, and achievements shared by all. By our actions, we have shown what kind of Nation we are. In grief, we found the grace to go on. In challenge, we rediscovered the courage and daring of a free people. In victory, we have shown the noble aims and good heart of America. And having come this far, we sense that we live in a time set apart.

I have been a witness to the character of the American people, who have shown calm in times of danger, compassion for one another, and toughness for the long haul. All of us have been partners in a great enterprise. And even some of the youngest understand that we are living in historic times. Last month a girl in Lincoln, Rhode Island, sent me a letter. It began, "Dear George W. Bush. If there is anything you know, I Ashley Pearson age 10 can do to help anyone, please send me a letter and tell me what I can do to save our country." She added this P.S.: "If you can send a letter to the troops -- please put, 'Ashley Pearson believes in you.'"

Tonight, Ashley, your message to our troops has just been conveyed. And yes, you have some duties yourself. Study hard in school, listen to your mom and dad, help someone in need, and when you and your friends see a man or woman in uniform, say "thank you." And while you do your part, all of us here in this great chamber will do our best to keep you and the rest of America safe and free.

My fellow citizens, we now move forward, with confidence and faith. Our Nation is strong and steadfast. The cause we serve is right, because it is the cause of all mankind. The momentum of freedom in our world is unmistakable -- and it is not carried forward by our power alone. We can trust in that greater power Who guides the unfolding of the years. And in all that is to come, we can know that His purposes are just and true.

May God bless the United States of America. Thank you.

As the president's allusion to Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address suggest, we do live in a significant time in history. The decisions we make, particularly concerning war, peace, and international cooperation, will shape the future of humankind, and possibly even our very existence as a species. It is one thing to know that we live in momentous times; it is another to have the vision to move the nation ahead in a positive, challenging direction. Unfortunately, this president does not seem to have much of a vision, other than war without end. He did not mention anything about the environment, even though environmental problems such as global warming, deforestation, salination of fresh water, and species and habitat destruction are of global concern. I was somewhat surprised that he did not mention the goal of returning astronauts to the moon and journeying on to Mars, a trial balloon that he floated about a week ago. The U.S. should support the advancement of science, and a Mars mission might be warranted, once the budget deficit is reduced and domestic and international priorities are addressed. Another worthy big-ticket science project is the investigation into the Grand Unification Theory (perhaps involving the creation of a superconducting supercollider like the one planned and then scrapped several years ago). Goals regarding health-related research were also ignored. Increased federal funding for AIDS or cancer research, for example, or to track the spread of communicable diseases like SARS is always needed. Finally, other than the assertion that jobs were being created--which they're not, at least not at a very fast rate--nothing much was said about getting Americans back to work.

America is a great country, and we deserve a great leader. We need someone with a vision not of doom and gloom but of hope and potential. We need a leader who can see beyond the needs of our country and embrace the needs of the world. We need a leader who understands the major issues of the day--environmental concerns, health concerns, technology, internationalism--and can talk intelligently with other world leaders about these issues. We need a leader who knows how to speak and act diplomatically, who sees value in our long-standing commitments to international cooperation, and who will restore our tarnished image with the world community. In November, we will have the opportunity to elect such a leader to replace the one we currently have.

© Copyright 2004, Progressive Theology

Progressive Theology