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Students, professors evaluate Bush address

Kaitlynn Riely and John Tierney | Wednesday, January 24, 2007

U.S. President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address Tuesday night came at a time when his approval ratings are low and Republicans and Democrats alike are questioning his recently announced plan to send more than 20,000 new troops to Iraq.

Bush reiterated his optimism about his recent decision to deploy more troops to Iraq as he appeared before the joint session of Congress and millions of Americans looked on – among those Notre Dame students huddled around televisions in dormitories and the LaFortune Student Center.

“… [N]othing is more important at this moment in our history than for America to succeed in the Middle East, to succeed in Iraq and to spare the American people from this danger,” Bush said.

The speech’s intent, said political science professor Louis Ayala, was “the desire to find consensus on some domestic policy issues and an emphasis on making clear that he has a specific goal for Iraq and he really believes in the surge.”

College Democrats of Notre Dame co-president Megan Hawley said Bush’s new surge plan and his speech Tuesday aren’t enough to persuade the Democrats – who now make up a majority of both the House of Representatives and the Senate – to support the increased troop deployment.

“I think he is going back to the rhetoric of fear that he has been using forever,” Hawley said.

Hawley and other College Democrats gathered in the basement of Breen-Phillips Tuesday night to watch the speech. Hawley doesn’t think Bush’s plan to send 20,000 more troops to Iraq will achieve peace in the country – and she’s fairly sure the Democrats in Congress won’t think so either.

“I don’t think we have as many troops as he wants to send,” Hawley said. “… I simply don’t think this is going to work.”

Bush asks for bipartisanship

Early in his speech, Bush congratulated the Democratic majority on its victory in the midterm elections, but stressed that the responsibilities the Congress has to the nation remain the same. Bush encouraged the new composition of the House and the Senate to use bipartisanship as they work on their agendas.

“Our citizens don’t much care which side of the aisle we sit on – as long as we are willing to cross that aisle when there is work to be done,” Bush said.

In a return to his pre-presidential reputation as a “uniter, not a divider,” Bush delivered his annual State of the Union address in a calculatedly bipartisan tone, said Notre Dame political science professor and presidential expert Peri Arnold.

“I found notable Bush’s relative degree of moderation,” Arnold said. “In the past, Bush has taken pressure on him as a reason to be even sharper and more hostile. But tonight, he was more moderate. He could’ve done a lot worse, and he has.”

Because the Democrats control both houses of Congress, Arnold said, Bush was forced to finally address issues that Democrats care about, such as the energy crisis, immigration and health care.

“The president was bipartisan in his speech by gesturing toward the Democrats, but he still took his own Republican positions on issues that the Democrats care about,” Arnold said. “He put forth Republican initiatives on Democratic issues.”

The president still made a marked turn to the center – best seen in his energy initiatives, Arnold said.

“He started to sound like an ecological president by calling for reduced use of gasoline, clean energy sources and even mentioning climate change for the first time,” Arnold said. “This was truly a more moderate Bush tonight.”

Arnold said the Democrats must do something to address both the domestic and foreign issues raised by Bush Tuesday in the months ahead.

“At the end of the day, the Democrats have to do business with the president if they want him to sign anything. They can’t just strong-arm legislation through all the time [as they are with the minimum wage bill]; sometimes they do need to negotiate,” Arnold said.

Arnold said the Democrats must address the domestic and foreign issues Bush raised in his address.

“I see [the Democrats] most likely to be willing to do business with Bush on immigration and education issues,” Arnold said. “In fact, the president is closer to the Democrats on immigration than he is to the Republicans.”

Notre Dame College Republicans president Sarah Way said the president’s stance on immigration is not strong enough. But she said she believes “it’s good for the president to reach across party lines.”

“He’s obviously learned something from the last elections and it’s a step in the right direction, even though I don’t like the policy that much,” Way said.

As part of his education agenda, Bush asked Congress to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act – a law enacted five years ago that has been “preserving local control, raising standards and holding schools accountable for results,” Bush said.

Ayala predicted that some version of the Act “will likely survive.”

But Hawley said the Democrats won’t support No Child Left Behind.

“Most Democrats recognize it as a failing program,” she said.

Also on Bush’s domestic agenda were balancing the federal budget, fixing Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and creating affordable and available health care for all Americans. In addition, Bush said he wants to keep the country’s borders safe while allowing foreign workers to enter the country legally to work on a temporary basis. Bush said the United States must also develop alternative fuel sources and lessen its dependency on foreign oil.

Hawley isn’t sure Bush will achieve all the objectives.

“I’m curious to see what he actually does with them,” Hawley said. “A lot of these words are empty words to me.”

Arnold said the State of the Union address was successful for Bush.

“In terms of public opinion polls, this speech won’t help the president,” he said. “But in terms of how the political class views it, yes, it was successful.”

Sophomore Jill Karas, who watched the speech at the Badin Hall State of the Union watch, said that she has more respect for the president after hearing him speak.

“He came across as more genuine and better presented this time than he did during the last speech about Iraq, which was terrible,” she said.

Karas agreed with the president’s position concerning Iraq that “we can’t just give up.”

“I liked how Bush said that no matter how people voted on the war, they didn’t vote to lose,” she said.

Pelosi makes history

Bush was not the only person people were watching Tuesday night. For the first time in American history, the Speaker of the House, who sits with the Vice President behind the President during the speech, was female.

Bush called it a “high privilege and distinct honor” to address Nancy Pelosi as the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

For Hawley and her co-president Helen Adeosun, this was an exciting moment for them as well.

“The highlight of the speech, for two female co-presidents, was hearing ‘Madame Speaker,'” Hawley said.