President George W. Bush

This Date in UCSF History: A Dark State of the Union

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Originally published on February 6, 2003.

It was the most somber evening, against all the “show biz” traditions of the State of the Union: no salute to the first lady, no acknowledgement of “special guests” invited to underscore various policies. The president never mentioned the empty seat, a tribute to the victims of 9/11.

There were definitely no humorous asides, not a light moment to the entire evening. In his second State of the Union speech, President Bush cited stimulating the nation’s economy as the primary goal of his administration and urged Congress to practice fiscal restraint as deficits grow. In promoting his economic plan, which Democrats have criticized as favoring the wealthiest taxpayers, Bush said the economy would grow if Americans are taxed less.

Bush called on Congress to pass the $674 billion, 10-year economic stimulus and tax cut. Yet the president also proposed new spending in a variety of areas, such as $1.2 billion in research funding for hydrogen-powered automobiles, $600 million for drug analysis treatment programs, $6 billion for bioterrorism vaccines, and $450 million initiative to recruit and train mentors to help more than one million disadvantaged junior high school students and children of prisoners.

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. Bush did not unveil a detailed proposal but said that Medicare should be available in “a variety of forms” that provide the elderly with options.

“I’d like to remind people medicine has changed and Medicare hasn’t,” Bush said. “It’s stuck in the past.”

In Washington, many Democrats criticized Bush’s domestic agenda, saying he was using the promise of a prescription drug benefit to dismantle Medicare and move to a private system. They also said he was not devoting enough money to other domestic priorities, such as education.

The president acknowledged medical care is too expensive and that many Americans have no coverage at all.

“These problems will not be solved with a nationalized health care system that dictates coverage and rations care,” he said. “Instead, we must work toward a system in which all Americans have a good insurance policy, choose their own doctors, and seniors and low-income Americans receive the help they need.”

Also, Bush urged Congress to limit medical malpractice suits to eliminate “the constant threat that physicians and hospitals will be unfairly sued.” In urging Congress to pass medical liability reform, the president said, “No one has ever been healed by a frivolous lawsuit.”

President Bush included a list of programs he described as applying “the compassion of America to the deepest problems of America” and urged Congress to pass his faith-based initiative, which would give religious charities more access to federal funds.

The president, under fire from AIDS groups for what they call his neglect of the epidemic, appeared to tear up when he asked Congress to triple AIDS spending in Africa and Haiti to $15 billion over five years.

The announcement took AIDS campaigners by surprise, but they quickly both welcomed the plan and expressed skepticism about it.

On its Internet Web site, the White House said the plan would target Botswana, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Guyana, Haiti, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. While the White House has stressed the domestic elements outlined in Bush’s State of the Union address, it was his comments on Iraq that captured much of the country and the world’s attention.

Like father, like son — before the first Gulf War, President Bush compared Saddam to Hitler to help explain him. Last Tuesday night, his son gave us a similar version, putting forward a graphic painting 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 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.”

Adding to his effort to convince Americans of a necessity for war, Bush charged that “thousands” of Iraqis were engaged in efforts to thwart inspectors and emphasized 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. According to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll of people who watched Bush’s speech Tuesday night, 67 percent think he has made a convincing case for military action to disarm Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, while 30 percent do not. Before the speech, 47 percent of the same group thought Bush had made his case, and 52 percent didn’t.

While Sen. Edward Kennedy, D, Massachusetts, introduced a resolution that would require the president to seek new congressional approval before ordering American forces into action, British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave full backing to Bush’s State of the Union address. But other nations — notably Russia and France — said Washington had not done enough to make the case for war against Iraq.

George W. Bush gave two speeches: one on his domestic agenda and another on his plan for confronting Saddam Hussein.

The first has already been forgotten. As the president went through his list of legislative priorities, it was hard to listen. An unspoken question hung in the air, “Will we go to war?”

Last Tuesday night’s answer, perhaps not definitive, was certainly more yes than no.