WASHINGTON — Relaxed, confident and unapologetic, President Bush delivered his seventh and likely final State of the Union address Monday, giving a triumphal appraisal of the war in Iraq and citing a list of modest proposals that came with two barbed veto threats.
The president opened the speech to the joint session of Congress with an appeal to bipartisanship, noting that the two parties had cooperated in recent days on proposed legislation to rescue the economy from a feared recession.
"In this election year, let us show our fellow Americans that we recognize our responsibilities and are determined to meet them," Bush said. "And let us show them that Republican and Democrats can compete for votes and cooperate for results at the same time."
But he quickly moved on to better-trod partisan ground, threatening to veto any tax increase and castigating Congress for what he considered wasteful funding for pet projects known as earmarks.
He said he would veto any spending bill that does not cut the cost of earmarks in half and would order his administration to ignore future earmarks attached to legislation at the last minute. "The people's trust in their government is undermined by congressional earmarks," he chided.
Some Democrats took offense. "I found it to be very combative and confrontational," Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) said. "Right out of the box, he started off with everything he's going to veto. His whole last two years has been about stopping change and stopping progress."
Bush devoted the largest section of his speech to the Iraq war, and his tone contrasted sharply with that of a year earlier -- when he used the address to acknowledge insurgent violence was on the rise and announce a "surge" in troops.
This year, with violence waning, Bush returned to the soaring rhetoric more typical of his State of the Union speeches. "We will not rest until this enemy has been defeated," he proclaimed. "We must do the difficult work today, so that years from now people will look back and say that this generation rose to the moment, prevailed in a tough fight, and left behind a more hopeful region and a safer America."
Throughout the 53-minute address, Bush connected his themes by using the word "trust" as a rhetorical refrain to herald the conservative idea of small government.
"In all we do, we must trust in the ability of free people to make wise decisions, and empower them to improve their lives and their futures," he said.
In the audience were the Democratic front-runners who are fighting fiercely to succeed him: Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois. The two sat a few feet apart but appeared to be avoiding each other.
"Tonight, for the seventh long year, the American people heard a State of the Union that didn't reflect the America we see, and didn't address the challenges we face," Obama said.
Clinton complained that Bush did not acknowledge "that the economy is not working for middle-class families. Unfortunately, what he offered was more of the same -- a frustrating commitment to the same failed policies that helped turn record surpluses into large deficits, and push a thriving 21st century economy to the brink of recession."
Bush's speech was a mix of tried-and-true themes for the president, sprinkled with a few new proposals modest enough to have a chance of being enacted this year.
Many are ideas cherished by Bush since he took office but rejected or ignored by Congress. Among them were a call to make his first-term tax cuts permanent, a plea to reauthorize his No Child Left Behind education plan, and a proposal to change the way healthcare premiums are taxed.
Among the new, less ambitious ideas were proposals to extend education benefits and federal hiring preferences to military spouses, and a $300-million grant program to help inner-city families who want to send their children to private or parochial schools.
Throughout most of the speech, Republicans roared approval and demonstrated their fervor with standing ovations. When Democrats didn't like what Bush was saying, they sat in stony silence. During the speech, one Republican surreptitiously read a magazine, while lawmakers on both sides stifled yawns.
Many Democrats singled out the president's comments on the economy for criticism. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said: "The president touched so lightly on the state of the economy. I don't think he has any idea the difficulty Americans are facing."
The economic stimulus package is perhaps the most successful compromise Democrats and Republicans have forged since control of Congress shifted to the Democrats last year. The House is expected to approve the nearly $150-billion measure today.
However, there are signs the Senate will not go along with the proposal.