WASHINGTON (JTA) – Just weeks after his first presidential visit to Israel, President Bush made clear his priority for his final year in office: the economy, stupid.
If the president has a Middle East breakthrough up his sleeve, he was not ready to reveal it Monday in the State of the Union address that precedes his last year in office.
The vast majority of Bush’s speech was dedicated to proposals to stimulate the U.S. economy and to defending his Iraq policies. His plans for Israeli-Palestinian peace and for confronting Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program were given short shrift toward the end.
The president cast Israeli-Palestinian peace as part of the broader struggle against Iraqi insurgents, segueing from what he said was the success of his “surge” policy in that country to his recent visit to Israel and the West Bank.
“We’re also standing against the forces of extremism in the Holy Land, where we have new cause for hope,” he said. “Palestinians have elected a president who recognizes that confronting terror is essential to achieving a state where his people can live in dignity and at peace with Israel. Israelis have leaders who recognize that a peaceful, democratic Palestinian state will be a source of lasting security.”
“This month in Ramallah and Jerusalem I assured leaders from both sides that America will do, and I will do, everything we can to help them achieve a peace agreement that defines a Palestinian state by the end of this year. The time has come for a Holy Land where a democratic Israel and a democratic Palestine live side by side in peace,” he said.
That led into Iran. An assessment by 16 U.S. intelligence agencies last year, which found that Iran had halted a covert nuclear weapons program in 2003, already had cast a pall over the Bush administration’s attempts to ratchet up international sanctions against the Islamic Republic to push it toward greater transparency.
Bush has all but made explicit his frustration with the National Intelligence Estimate and his belief that it underestimates Iran’s determination to revive such a program. Yet the State of the Union speech notably abjured mention of any new sanctions, confining itself to standard warnings.
“Verifiably suspend your nuclear enrichment so negotiations can begin,” Bush said in remarks aimed at Iran. “And to rejoin the community of nations, come clean about your nuclear intentions and past actions, stop your oppression at home, cease your support for terror abroad. But above all, know this: America will confront those who threaten our troops, we will stand by our allies and we will defend our vital interests in the Persian Gulf.”
In the long domestic portion of his speech, what was significant for Jewish groups watching – and anxiously awaiting Bush’s final budget, to be handed down next month – was not what he said but what he didn’t.
Jewish social action groups, led by the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella organization, are focused on cuts in recent years to health-care assistance to the elderly and to uninsured children. Bush’s comment on health care, much like his bromides about Middle East peace and Iran, were confined to recommitments to increased incentives for Americans to get private health care.
“We share a common goal: making health care more affordable and accessible for all Americans,” he said. “The best way to achieve that goal is by expanding consumer choice, not government control.”
More substantially, as part of his economic stimulus push, Bush said he would veto any spending bill that did not cut in half earmarks – funding amendments included in larger bills at the discretion of individual Congress members. Such earmarks have been key to funding Jewish programs for the elderly, most prominently the Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities pioneered by UJC.
UJC is also leading a coalition of 150 national and local groups pressing Bush and Congress to include in the stimulus package federal funds to help states contemplating cuts in Medicaid, the medical assistance program for the poor.
“This kind of fiscal relief is one of the best ways to help avert painful state budget cuts and tax increases,” said the letter sent to every Congress member on Monday. “This was last used as an engine to encourage economic recovery in 2003-04.”
That earlier boost “pumped needed funds into the economy over an 18-month period and played a vital role in helping to move us out of recession,” the letter said.
Bush’s only mention of Medicaid was a passing referrence to his proposals to “reform” entitlement programs.
The crux of Bush’s stimulus is making tax cuts permanent. Inevitably that would undercut entitlement programs, but Jewish groups traditionally have maintained a silence on tax cuts, partly because some major donors favor the cuts and partly it is a purely partisan issue, and to oppose the cuts effectively would mean opposing the Republican Party.
The Orthodox Union found something to praise in the domestic package, particularly in Bush’s proposal to enact his faith-based funding initiatives into law. Until now these programs have been funded by executive order, and they are likely to wither if Bush is replaced by a Democrat.
The O.U. also praised a Bush proposal to expand Pell grants, the program that assists poor college students, to school-age students, effectively helping to fund tuition for private and religious schools.