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Bush's uneasy state

ANY PRESIDENT'S fourth-year State of the Union Address is a tightrope walk -- especially if the president is running for reelection. Last night, President Bush attempted to stay above the hot rhetoric and sharp elbows of the campaign among Democrats seeking to oust him -- but with only modest success. With lines like "America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our people," Bush was clearly sounding a campaign theme.


And, by recycling proposals he has been pushing for most of his term, he raised the question of why he has been unable to enact more of his program during his first three years. The capture of Saddam Hussein and the move by Libya to dismantle its nuclear program allowed Bush some credibility in claiming that the world has become a safer place under his watch. But the very emphasis he gave to the continuing threat of international terror, plus the difficulty in helping rebuild Iraq in a way that will calm regional frictions, underline the dangers that persist.

Domestically, Bush pushed for permanent enactment of his excessive tax cuts, a move that will gladden the far-right conservatives he seems most comfortable with. But this is one of the initiatives he has been unable to secure from Congress and, besides, polls indicate that many Americans believe -- correctly in our view -- that the cuts have increased the budget deficit perilously and that they go far too much to the wealthy.

Raising the issue of gay marriage, Bush talked of a respectful debate, but then threatened that "activist judges" may force opponents to seek a constitutional amendment.

In other ways, Bush veered more toward a middle ground, perhaps recognizing that there aren't enough arch-conservatives to keep him in the White House in November. For instance, he proposed steps to increase employment and to decrease the shameful number of Americans -- most of them working people -- who have no health insurance. On jobs, Bush said, "We must respond by helping more Americans gain the skills to find good jobs in our new economy." But his tepid response only underlined his inability to recapture the job loss that has been the most troubling economic problem during his administration.And the health care proposals were mostly retreads aimed at controlling costs and do not move aggressively to improve access. The Democratic candidates have all made clear that they believe Bush is vulnerable as a president who has served wealthy Americans and corporate interests handsomely, but has done little for average Americans.

Much of Bush's rhetoric last night played to the middle class and to working families, but his policy agenda fails to match the words.

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