WASHINGTON – President Bush (search) asked Americans to continue to rise to meet "great responsibilities" in a State of the Union address that also focused on progress in Iraq, increasing security at home and the effect of tax cuts.
After launching the war on terrorism and laying the groundwork for the war in Iraq in the last two State of the Union (search) addresses, Bush urged Americans on Tuesday night to stay the course as the economy continues its comeback and the war begins to show peace dividends.
"America this evening is a nation called to great responsibilities. And we are rising to meet them," Bush said. "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," Bush said.
Bush kicked off the 54-minute-long speech to both chambers of Congress and a national audience of 60 million Americans by focusing on an area often criticized by his detractors though frequently cited as his strong suit — national security and the war on terrorism (search).
"America is on the offensive against the terrorists ... Our greatest responsibility is the active defense of the American people," Bush said in the address, which was designated a national special security event by the Department of Homeland Security.
Bush said that despite the extra vigilance at home, Americans should not be deluded into a false sense of security.
"Twenty-eight months have passed since Sept. 11, 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," he said.
Stopping for applause 72 times, the president maintained a sober delivery of his messages, which didn't provide much basis for grandstanding but are likely to be campaign themes throughout the election year.
Bush discussed the progress being made in both Afghanistan and Iraq, noting that the United States is working with the Iraqis and the United Nations to help the country transition to full sovereignty by the end of June.
He repeated that U.S. forces and allies are hunting down terrorists wherever they may hide, and that "after the chaos and carnage of Sept. 11, it is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers."
He said U.S.-led troops have taken the fight to Iraq and Afghanistan where "killers, joined by foreign terrorists, are a serious, continuing danger." Despite those dangers, "the men and women of Afghanistan are building a nation that is free, and proud, and fighting terror. 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."
Bush praised the work of the 35 coalition partners who have sent troops to Iraq and thanked U.S. soldiers for capturing 45 of the top 55 most wanted former Ba'athist leaders there. But Democratic leaders responding to the president said Bush has not done enough to get other nations on board in the war on terror.
"He has pursued a 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," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. "The president led us into the Iraq war on the basis of unproven assertions without evidence; he embraced a radical doctrine of pre-emptive war unprecedented in our history; and he failed to build a true international coalition."
The president pointed out that the Kay Report included tens of thousands of documents showing there were weapons program activities in Iraq that were in violation of U.N. rules. He also responded to criticism that the United States should have stayed out of Iraq by citing non-military progress elsewhere in the world. Specifically, he pointed to Libya and its moves to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction programs and insisted that North Korea eliminate its nuclear program.
"Different threats require different strategies," the president said. "America is committed to keeping the world's most dangerous weapons out of the hands of the world's most dangerous regimes."
Bush said he will send Congress a proposal to double the budget of the National Endowment for Democracy, and focus on free elections, free markets, free press and free labor unions in the Middle East, as well.
For securing the home front, Bush said homeland security and law enforcement personnel should have "every tool they need to defend us," including the Patriot Act, which calls for increased information sharing and seizing terrorist assets, among other things.
"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 ... Key provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire next year. The terrorist threat will not expire on that schedule," Bush said, calling on Congress to renew the legislation.
Democrats argue they can do a better job protecting the home front than the Bush administration, and will focus more on protecting ports and waterways, improving real-time communication among first responders and securing nuclear and other fissile material around the world.
"America will be far safer if we reduce the chances of a terrorist attack in one of our cities than if we diminish the civil liberties of our own people," Pelosi said.
'I Refuse to Give Up on Any Child'
Saying the U.S. economy is getting stronger every day, Bush pointed out that, under his watch, taxes have been lowered, the child-tax credit has doubled, the marriage penalty has been reduced, the death tax is being phased out and taxes on capital gains and stock dividends have been reduced, among other things.
Home construction is up, as are home ownership rates, productivity and manufacturing, while inflation and interest rates are low.
"The pace of economic growth in the third quarter of 2003 was the fastest in nearly 20 years," Bush said.
But Bush acknowledged that the key to productivity is building a skilled workforce, a complaint that Democrats say has not been done under this president.
Bush called on Congress to help train Americans through his "Jobs of the 21st Century" program, which aims to give extra help to middle and high school students who fall behind in reading and math, will expand advanced placement programs in low-income schools and invite math and science professionals to teach part-time in schools, among other things.
"America's growing economy is also a changing economy," Bush said. "We must respond by helping more Americans gain the skills to find good jobs in our new economy."
Although Bush's No Child Left Behind Act has its critics, Bush said it's working to get results via testing and raising accountability.
"This nation will not go back to the days of simply shuffling children along from grade to grade without them learning the basics," Bush said. "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."
Health Care, Immigration, and Compassionate Conservatism
On health care, Bush proposed a basket of tax credits and incentives to make insurance more affordable. The Democrats have made clear they will make health care a major issue this year, noting that some 43 million Americans are without health insurance.
"Our goal is to ensure that Americans can choose and afford private health care coverage that best fits their individual needs," Bush said. "To make insurance more affordable, Congress must act to address rapidly rising health care costs."
Bush also warned that any attempt to limit the prescription drug choices offered in the 10-year, $400 billion Medicare bill passed by Congress last year "will meet my veto."
He also called on Congress to finish up tax bills still lying around and urged lawmakers to pass legislation to modernize the country's electricity systems, promote conservation and make America less dependent on foreign sources of energy.
Bush also called on lawmakers to reform immigration laws "so they reflect our values and benefit our economy."
He recently proposed a new temporary worker program he said will help protect the homeland and boost border control efforts. It will "preserve the citizenship path for those who respect the law, while bringing millions of hardworking men and women out of the shadows of American life," Bush said.
Bush also said his proposed budget includes new funding to continue community-based strategies to reduce demand for illegal drugs — school drug testing being a major part of this initiative. He called on team owners, union representatives, coaches and players "to send the right signal, to get tough, and to get rid of steroids now."
In the budget, Bush also proposed a grassroots campaign to inform families of the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases and to double funding for abstinence programs.
Bush also touched on his compassionate conservative theme, asking lawmakers to codify into law his executive order opening billions of dollars in grant money to competition that includes faith-based charities. He also proposed a four-year, $300 million prisoner re-entry initiative to expand job training and placement services 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," Bush said as the camera zoomed in on one of his guests, Julio Medina, executive director of Exodus Transitional Community. Medina spent 12 years in prison for selling drugs as a teenager. While there, he obtained a masters degree and when released organized ETC, which offers a safe haven for ex-offenders to seek help and support.
"The path ahead should lead to a better life," Bush said.
Social Issues Address Conservative Base
Touching on a hot potato as of late — gay marriage and domestic partner benefits — Bush said, "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."
Bush noted that Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, signed in 1996, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman and prohibits one state from defining marriage for another state. He said "activist judges" continue to try to alter the law by court order and are "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," he said.
Fox News' Jim Angle, Wendell Goler and Liza Porteus contributed to this report.