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Bush, Pressing Agenda, Says US Must Not Fail in Iraq War

By David E. Sanger
and Jim Rutenberg


President Bush tried to resuscitate his ailing presidency Tuesday night, using his State of the Union address to present a modest agenda of energy and health care proposals while warning an increasingly assertive Congress against undercutting his new Iraq strategy.

It was a speech that reflected Bush’s difficult circumstances. It was limited in ambition and political punch at home, with no proposals to rival his call two years ago to remake the Social Security system, no mention of rebuilding New Orleans, no allusions to limiting stem cell research or banning gay marriage.

And when it came to his plan to send additional troops to Iraq, he was forced to plead with the Democrats who now control Congress — as well as a growing number of Republican critics — to “give it a chance to work.”

In an admission that the United States now finds itself trapped in the cross-fire of a sectarian conflict, Bush said: “This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we are in.” While he insisted that America could not afford to fail, he also warned the Iraqi government that “our commitment is not open-ended.”

His freshest initiative was setting a goal of reducing projected gasoline consumption 20 percent over the next 10 years, hitting an environmental theme tailored to buttress his appeal for bipartisanship in a city where the balance of power has shifted markedly against Bush and the Republicans since the last State of the Union address. Although he did not propose any measures to deal with emissions from power plants and factories, the main sources of greenhouse gases, he spoke directly of “the serious challenge of global climate change.”

But the other main element of his domestic agenda, a package of proposals intended to improve access to health insurance, had drawn intense opposition from Democrats long before Bush walked to the well of the House chamber on Tuesday night, a scene he could not have relished but handled graciously. Behind him sat a Democratic House speaker, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, sitting alongside Vice President Dick Cheney. In front of him was an audience of Democrats growing increasingly comfortable with their new power, including quite a few who are jockeying to take his job and reverse the policies he has put in place.

Bush gamely ticked off other goals he would like to achieve before leaving office in three days short of two years, including overhauling immigration laws, taking steps toward a balanced budget and dealing with the long-term financial condition of Social Security and Medicare, and imposing tighter standards on schools.

Yet the proposals were overwhelmed by the Iraq debate.

“Many in this chamber understand that America must not fail in Iraq,” Bush said, “because you understand that the consequences of failure would be grievous and far-reaching.”

While Bush has traditionally used these speeches to present a hopeful vision of Iraq’s future, he could not do so on Tuesday night. His own nominee to take over the command of U.S. forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, told the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier in the day that “the situation in Iraq is dire.”