By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, January 21, 2004; 10:25 AM

You can't look more presidential than when you're delivering a State of the Union address, and President Bush took full advantage of that bully pulpit to make his election-year case that the country is safer and stronger thanks to his leadership -- and that turning "back" to the policies of his critics would be very dangerous indeed.

I'll round up the coverage of what was in last night's State of the Union in just a minute. But first, a look at what the various news stories, analyses, pundits and bloggers are saying was notably missing.

• The traditional long list of major new legislation.

• Any mention of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

• Any mention of his big new space initiative.

• An exit strategy for Iraq.

• An explanation of the misleading statements in last year's State of the Union address.

• Acknowledgment that U.S. inspectors have found no unconventional weapons in Iraq.

• Any mention of Osama bin Laden.

• A statement of sympathy for those who remain jobless.

• Specifics about how to get control of the federal budget deficit.

• Evidence that "terrorists continue to plot against America and the civilized world."

• Any mention of that plan to spend $1.5 billion on efforts to promote marriage.

• Any mention of the environment.

• An expression of sympathy to the families who lost loved ones in Iraq.

• Reaching out to Democrats.

The Lead Stories

"President Bush last night devoted the final State of the Union address of his term to a vigorous and sometimes combative defense of his actions as president, calling the United States a 'nation with a mission' that has made the right decisions to invade Iraq, cut taxes, and reshape its education and health care laws," write Dana Milbank and Mike Allen in The Washington Post.

There was a partisan mood in the House chamber, they report, "with many of the 71 interruptions for applause coming from Republicans alone. Democrats surprised Bush by applauding when he observed that 'key provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire next year,' leaving Republicans to applaud alone when Bush called for the act's renewal."

In the New York Times, Elisabeth Bumiller and Richard W. Stevenson write: "President Bush warned Americans on Tuesday night that there could still be a terrorist attack on the United States and then presented a choice between his continued leadership and a return to the 'dangerous illusion' that the threat had ended. . . .

"Mr. Bush cast himself as the steady commander in chief of what he portrayed as a nation at war, seeming to suggest that changing the leader midbattle was risky."

Maura Reynolds in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush declared Tuesday in his State of the Union speech that the use of force abroad and deep tax cuts at home had allowed America to turn back its two largest threats -- terrorism and recession -- and that the nation had emerged from its challenges 'confident and strong.' "

Over at the Washington Times, Bill Sammon and Joseph Curl write: "Although Mr. Bush was careful not to make his speech overtly political, he clearly was sketching out a vision of national and economic security that cannot be trusted to antiwar, pro-tax Democrats."

The News Analyses

David Von Drehle writes in The Washington Post that "Bush responded to criticisms that his would-be challengers are still working to formulate. . . .

"Bush has heard what the Democrats have been saying about him in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere: that the war on terrorism is lagging, that he has squandered international goodwill with his actions in Iraq, that he misled the public into war, that his tax cuts have plunged the country into deficit, that he has failed to deliver education reform, that he has put millions out of work, and so on. These charges, and other campaign imperatives, gave shape to a speech that was otherwise rather loosely tied together, where it was tied at all."

Todd S. Purdum writes in the New York Times that Bush "reminded his listeners, and his Democratic rivals, that he begins this election year conspicuously atop the political equivalent of Everest, while the men who would replace him are scrambling in the foothills of the White Mountains."

With his comments about abstinence and marriage and federal grants for religion-based institutions, Bush was "portraying himself as the national paterfamilias, fighting to protect the American way," Purdum writes. In fact, "The White House was so eager to highlight these passages that the president's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, telephoned social conservative groups on Tuesday to make sure they would be watching the speech."

Peter G. Gosselin in the Los Angeles Times writes: "When all was said and done Tuesday night, President Bush's Big Idea for fixing what ails America came down to one thing: economic recovery." It's "an immense election-year bet."

Judy Keen in USA Today writes that the address "was as political as any candidate's stump speech at a campaign rally."

USA Today also provides a "reality check"on the president's statements about weapons of mass destruction, Iraq's new government, and five other issues.

From Knight-Ridder's William Douglas: "President Bush proclaimed in Tuesday night's State of the Union address that he has put the United States on a path to peace and prosperity, but questions remain about whether America is any more secure and whether his rosy economic outlook can be fully realized."

How It Played

Of course every State of the Union is part theater.

Tom Shales in The Washington Post pans it. "We like a confident president, but we don't like a cocky president, and George W. Bush had too many moments of cockiness last night as he delivered his third State of the Union address to both houses of Congress and the viewing nation. Often the words of the speech were written to sound lofty, but Bush had such a big Christmas-morning grin on his face that they came out sounding like taunts -- taunts to the rest of the world or taunts to Democrats in the hall."

Sonni Efron writes in the Los Angeles Times that "instead of declaring, as he had so often in the past, that such banned weapons would yet be found, Bush talked of identifying 'dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed from the Untied Nations.' " But, Effron writes, "The phrasing was so tortured that, despite his practice sessions, Bush tripped over the words."

Richard Benedetto in USA Today says "Speech watchers in a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll gave Bush high marks for his policies on terrorism and taxes."

Full Coverage

There's so much more.

On washingtonpost.com alone, you've got a full coverage page with links to the full text of the address as delivered, niftily indexed by topic; an instant analysis from associate editor Robert G. Kaiser, Dan Balz and Paul Schwartzman on the response from the Democratic candidates, Steve Fainaruwith some background on Bush's surprising call for a crackdown on steroids, and a photo gallery.

Plus, I'll be Live Online today at 11 taking your questions about State of the Union coverage.

More full coverage pages from the New York Timesand the Los Angeles Timesand MSNBC.com.

She's Back!

Karen P. Hughes -- the longtime confidante of the president who stepped down a year and a half ago from her official White House role as "counselor" to move back to Texas -- is back.

Not permanently, and not all the time. But "I'm planning on being here more and more this year," she told Larry King last night on CNN.

Hughes worked on the address, although she tells King that "Our great speechwriting team, led by Mike Gerson and John McConnell and Matt Scully were really the principal architects of the speech."

She was in the first lady's box at the speech last night. And she'll even be on the White House Web site on "Ask the White House" today at 11 a.m.

Reading her comments in the Larry King transcript is sort of like getting an inside look at the Bush battle plan. Some excerpts:

"We've emerged from the terror attacks and the recession that President Bush inherited and the war in Iraq. And we're still at war across the world. Our servicemen are still deployed across the world. But the country is safer and stronger and our economy is growing. And I just think it was a wonderful moment for the country tonight. . . .

"I think the Democrats seemed to be having a little trouble deciding which candidate they want to go with. And I can kind of understand why. I think one of the most critical issues this year is our national security. I know every mom in America, like me, that's what we're concerned about, the national security of our children.

"And the Democratic candidates have sort of been all over the map on that vital, vital issue. Now, a couple of things seem to be clear to me. All of them want to raise our taxes. All of them have expressed concerns about the Patriot Act, which is so vital a tool in fighting the war against terror. All of them oppose, apparently, parts of, at least, the Medicare prescription drug plan.

"And -- but the one thing that I, as an American in my home in Austin, Texas, seem to be hearing from them is that they really, really don't like George Bush. And that is just not a very optimistic view for the future of our country. And I think Americans are going to look at this election, once the Democrats pick their nominee. And it's going to be a close race.

"This is a divided country. But I think, in the end, that Americans will decide that they want to go with the strong and steady and experienced leadership of President Bush.

Today's Calendar

The president is off and running today on a two-day swing through Ohio, Arizona and New Mexico to highlight his job training and counterterrorism proposals.

Randall Mikkelsen of Reuters writes that "President Bush will visit states key to his reelection bid on Wednesday in an effort to build political momentum. . . .

" 'These are three must-win battleground states that the White House has obviously identified as top-tier,' Republican strategist Scott Reed said."

How Now, Brown Cloud?

I asked you in yesterday's column to help me figure out what Vice President Cheney meant when he asked, rhetorically, if he was "brown cloud." I'm still working on it. Even a call to his press secretary didn't clear things up. If you have any more ideas, e-mail froomkin@washingtonpost.com.

© 2004 washingtonpost.com