Bush Makes a Strong Case on Iraq

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President Bush pauses for applause during his State of the Union address

George Bush gave two speeches tonight: one on his domestic agenda and another on his plan for confronting Saddam Hussein. The first has already been forgotten. Many may remember the second as marking the first time they knew we were going to war.

State of the Union Speeches are usually as much about the way a president delivers his remarks as they are about the remarks themselves. The theater is usually not very good. President's rouge up their plans, but the long list of programs and calls to grand action often feel as hollow as the many standing ovations.

Tonight, when George Bush talked about Iraq there was only a lone cough. There didn't need to be the phony interruptions for applause and Bush didn't try to goose the audience into giving them. He put forward a powerful indictment without clinking his spurs too much or leaning on his holster.

The speech was dead serious, and without lapses into the occasional I'm-looking-at-you-seriously-now furrow. It did not contain a single wisecrack; Bush stowed his famous snicker even during the entry glad-handing. He was a long way from the president who joked about his legitimacy in his first visit to that well of the House.

Beyond the simple theatrics and straight delivery, Bush made news too. He charged that "thousands" of Iraqis were engaged in efforts to thwart inspectors and he made good on Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz's claim that the Iraqis had infiltrated the weapons inspection teams. He charged that Saddam is intimidating scientists and replacing them with imposters when the U.N. teams come knocking. If this stands up, these two charges may become the ones that tip the country and the U.N. Security Council fully in favor of U.S. military action against Saddam. Or, if Secretary of State Powell is unable to prove Bush's claims in his trip to the U.N. next week the new allegations may seem like desperate attempts to come up with any dirt that will work and undo the support the president rallied tonight.

Before the first Gulf War, President Bush compared Saddam to Hitler to help explain him. Tonight, his son did a version of the same, putting forward a graphic litany of the Iraqi dictator's abuses: " electric shock, burning with hot irons, dripping acid on the skin, mutilation with electric drills, cutting out tongues, and rape." This was an abbreviated version of stories that have animated the president for months, according to White House officials. These are the tales that Bush tells in the private meetings. This barbarism is why, advisers say, Bush is so insistent, as he said in his speech: "Trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy, and it is not an option."

The press is obsessed with the Iraq question and the country does want to hear what George Bush has planned for healthcare and the economy. In many polls, people say that the economy concerns them more than Iraq or the war on terror. But watching George Bush's body language and the way the speech developed shows that it isn't just the Washington media that is heavily focused on Iraq.

Bush's case for his domestic programs seemed dutiful compared to his pitch against Saddam. Martial speeches are just easier than ones about tax and healthcare policy, but he toured through his domestic agenda quickly — from plans to spur production of hydrogen-powered automobiles to fostering healthy forests — getting his legs under himself only for his discussion of faith based initiatives. His plan for removing taxes on dividends is failing. Members of both parties oppose it and all he did was essentially re-read the talking points. Bush can be evangelical when talking about education. When he sold his first $1.3 trillion tax cut he became animated talking about single mothers trying to support a family. There was none of that tonight.

The president appeared to tear up when he talked about his $15 billion AIDS initiative and again, when he promised "free people will set the course of history." (Memo to the TV director of future speeches: don't focus on Tom Ridge for half a minute when the president is working his way through one of the most passionate parts of his speech.)

For a president who is best when focusing on one task, the split in Bush's speech tonight raises the old issues about his administration's ability to multi-task. "We can walk and chew gum at the same time," says a senior White House official. But senior officials also joke that the administration has Attention Deficit Disorder and can't stay on message when it comes to domestic programs. In addition to his bold growth package, Bush is also taking on a substantial $400 billion reorganization of Medicare based on the politically charged strategy of inducing seniors into more cost effective plans by offering a prescription drug benefit. It's a big gamble and one that will require constant presidential tending. Even allies expect the program to get nowhere in Congress, winding up like Bush's plan for Social Security private accounts which he pushed in the 2000 campaign but which merited only a single sentence tonight.

Issue overload hampered Bush's economic pitch last year and there are signs it will again. Last week, twice, when President Bush tried to draw headlines and attention to his growth package, he trumped himself by making more news with his remarks on Iraq. One aide was so focused on proving that the public supported the president's policy towards Saddam Hussein, he was willing to get off message about the economy. "The Iraq numbers are fine," he said, "it's the numbers on the economy that worry us." Tonight, Bush did more to help the first than to fix the second.