Hampered by huge budget deficits and an unpopular war, US President George Bush today called for training 70,000 maths and science teachers to improve US competitiveness with booming Asian nations and declared that America must break its dependence on Mideast oil.
“America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world,” Bush said as he sought to drive the election-year agenda in his annual State of the Union address.
He declared that the “the state of our union is strong” despite Americans’ anxieties about the war in Iraq, the economy, and rising energy prices which throwing a cloud over the economy and pinching Americans’ pocketbooks.
Bush called for increased federal research into alternative fuels such as ethanol made from weeds or wood chips instead of corn.
Bush’s address came amid a changing of the guard elsewhere in Washington. Conservative judge Samuel Alito was sworn in as a new Supreme Court justice, replacing Sandra Day O’Connor, who has been a moderate swing vote.
The Senate also confirmed Ben Bernanke to be chairman of the Federal Reserve, replacing Alan Greenspan after 18 years in the influential job. Alito was in the House chamber, alongside new Chief Justice John Roberts, another Bush nominee.
Facing budget deficits that may approach or exceed $400bn (€329bn) this year, Bush had no room for expensive, new initiatives.
Frustrated by Congress’ refusal to consider his Social Security overhaul, Bush switched gears and asked lawmakers to join him in naming a commission to examine the impact of America’s ageing population on pension and health care costs.
Three years from leaving office, Bush went before the nation as a politically weakened president after the toughest year of his administration. With Americans anxious about the economy, weary of the Iraq war and unhappy about the administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina, Bush’s job approval rating is in the anaemic high 30s to low 40s.
Health care is a priority for both parties, particularly since nearly 46 million Americans lack insurance. Democrats say that in 2005 alone, the number of uninsured grew by nearly a million. Bush proposed new tax incentives to encourage Americans to save for health care needs.
As he has in every State of the Union address to some extent, Bush said the US must curb its reliance on foreign oil imports.
He called for more research on batteries for hybrid and electric cars and work on alternative fuels to produce ethanol from wood chips, stalks or switch grass.
“Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years,” the president said. ”Breakthroughs on this and other new technologies will help us reach another great goal: to replace more than 75% of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025.
By targeting only Mideast oil, Bush was ignoring the largest sources of American petroleum consumption – Mexico and Canada. Imports of oil and refined product from the Gulf make up less than a fifth of all imports and 11% of total consumption, according to Energy Department statistics.
The State of the Union speech is one of the prime events on the US political calendar. The nationally-televised speech is delivered before members of Congress, Cabinet secretaries and other dignitaries.
Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine, delivering the response for the Democrats, scolded Bush on the soaring national debt, the frustrated effort to rebuild the hurricane-battered Gulf Coast, and other issues. On Iraq, Kaine said that Americans were given “inaccurate information about the reasons for invading” and that troops were given body armour that was inadequate.
“The federal government should serve the American people,” the newly elected governor said in excerpts released ahead of his speech. “But that mission is frustrated by this administration’s poor choices and bad management.
The speeches of Bush and Kaine set a tough tone for November’s midterm elections for House and Senate members and most of the nation’s governors.