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"The state of our union is strong," President Bush declared barely a minute into his annual address before a joint session of Congress on Feb. 2-but he might have been referring to the state of his administration, as well. Emboldened by a decisive election at home and energized by democratic rumblings abroad, Mr. Bush laid out an ambitious agenda that would, if enacted, long outlive his own tenure in the White House.
The newly confident president addressed head-on a number of issues he might have handled more delicately in the past. He predicted peace between Israel and Palestine, publicly scolded nondemocratic allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and unabashedly declared, "I support a constitutional amendment to protect the institution of marriage."
But more than anything else, Mr. Bush not only touched on the so-called "third rail" of American politics, he jumped on it with both feet. Citing Social Security as a measure "created decades ago, for a very different era," the president said it is time to reform the massive entitlement program for the 21st century.
"By the year 2042, the entire system will be exhausted and bankrupt," he declared, eliciting audible groans and cries of "No!" from the Democratic side of the aisle. To prevent that from happening, he proposed allowing younger workers to divert a portion of their payroll taxes into voluntary retirement accounts similar to those enjoyed by federal employees.
Anticipating one line of attack by the Democrats, Mr. Bush sought to reassure older Americans that their guaranteed benefits would be safe under the new plan. "I have a message for every American who is 55 or older," Mr. Bush said. "Do not let anyone mislead you. For you, the Social Security system will not change in any way."
Though Republicans took to their feet several times during the lengthy Social Security section of the speech, even some members of the president's party seemed wary of the cost of reform. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) withheld her applause, for instance, and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said he would have to examine the price tag "very closely."
Indeed, with another $80 billion requested for the war in Iraq, Mr. Bush may find it difficult to fund much of his agenda, both foreign and domestic. While the president promised his upcoming budget would reduce or eliminate some 150 federal programs, he went on to outline several new initiatives that would run well into the billions of dollars.
To guarantee that "every high school diploma is a ticket to success," Mr. Bush asked that Congress expand the No Child Left Behind program of mandatory testing to include the upper grades. To foster democracy in the Middle East, he requested $350 million in new aid to the Palestinians. To keep teens from joining gangs, he announced a new program of community partnerships headed by his wife, Laura. And to ensure fair trials for accused murderers, he proposed a new national training program for defense lawyers.
If such measures elicited skepticism among conservatives, the president attempted to rally his political base with a few choice sentences woven into his 55-minute address. While he largely avoided the "God-talk" that liberals have criticized in past speeches, Mr. Bush vowed "to honor and to pass along the values that sustain a free society." In addition to calling for a Federal Marriage Amendment, Mr. Bush again championed faith-based initiatives and vowed to build a "culture of life."
Though many Democrats sat warily silent as the president discussed gay marriage and embryonic stem-cell research, the entire chamber was swept to its feet when the subject turned to voting in Iraq. "In any nation, casting your vote is an act of civic responsibility; for millions of Iraqis, it was also an act of personal courage, and they have earned the respect of us all," Mr. Bush said as lawmakers roared their approval.
Still, the evening's warmest applause was reserved not for a line in the president's speech, but for the lines of grief on a mother's face. As onlookers dabbed at their eyes, Janet Norwood, the mother of a fallen Marine, clutched her son's dog tags and wept openly on the shoulder of Safia Taleb al-Suhail, an Iraqi activist whose index finger was still stained with purple ink from her trip to the voting booth three days earlier.
Iraqi ink and American blood. For a moment, at least, partisan disagreements were set aside as lawmakers considered the state of a union between two women who had never met, yet had everything in common.