TOPICS > Politics

The President’s Agenda

January 20, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: The president’s State of the Union speech tonight and to Ray Suarez.

RAY SUAREZ: And we get that preview from Karen Hughes. She’s an advisor to the president and helped write tonight’s speech.

And, Ms. Hughes, maybe you can tell us whether it’s all finished or if this is a president who’s fiddling with the language right up until he’s announced by the sergeant at arms.

KAREN HUGHES: No, Ray. In fact, I have a funny story about that. This is a president who likes the speech to be put to bed fairly early. He did a last practice this morning. There won’t be any more changes to the speech.

The funny story is on Sept. 20, when the president was preparing for his joint session address to Congress after the terror attacks, Paul Begala, who is frequently my opponent, actually did a very nice thing and called with a suggestion late in the afternoon. And I said, “Paul, that’s the difference between your President Clinton and my President Bush: President Bush would not be making any changes at this point.” And he told me that President Clinton would change literally as he drove to the capitol.

But that’s not President Bush. We started working on this speech back in October. We had our first meeting to talk about themes. He got an outline over the Christmas holidays to review, and we’ve had a number of sessions since. We really pretty much finalized it over the weekend at Camp David. He made a few changes yesterday and a few, you know, last-minute tinkering with it today, but it’s put to bed at this point.

RAY SUAREZ: The last speech heavily addressed foreign affairs themes. Will that be the case again tonight?

KAREN HUGHES: This speech will start with that because obviously our national security is still a huge issue that worries a lot of Americans and affects every American family, and so the president will talk … will start by … begin by talking about our progress in the war against terror. He will remind Americans that we have hundreds of thousands of troops deployed across the world tonight, and that we are still a nation at war. It would be nice to think and to hope and it would be comforting to hope that we didn’t have to worry that terrorists were plotting to kill us, but we, unfortunately, cannot indulge in that kind of thinking because they are continuing to plot, although we are also, as the president will outline, making great progress. We have captured or killed about two-thirds of the known al-Qaida leaders across the world. We’ve also captured or killed 45 of the 55 of the top leaders of Saddam Hussein’s former regime.

So we are making great progress in making the world safer, but one of the president’s jobs tonight is to remind the people of America that we are still under threat.

RAY SUAREZ: It was a little unusual, but last year’s state of the union address was back in the news much of the calendar year last year, attention paid to different parts of the argument made for war with Iran. Will the president be revisiting some of those claims and explaining where things stand?

KAREN HUGHES: Well, he will be explaining where things stand, and what he will say about Iraq is that we are still, we are still seeking the facts. Obviously we are still trying to secure the country. Our forces there are still under attack. We are interviewing people as we capture them. We are still trying to find the facts. He will also, though, tell the American people what we have found so far, and that is … and I think this message frankly didn’t get through in a lot of the news media coverage that I saw of David Kay’s report. What inspector David Kay found was that he found evidence of ongoing weapons of mass destruction activities in Iraq. And the president … and also evidence of ongoing deceptions by Iraqis about those activities, and so the president will state that tonight, and then say that we are still seeking the facts, as we are.

RAY SUAREZ: Has the process been altered at all by the mixed signals over yellow cake and alleged acquisition of uranium by Iraq?

KAREN HUGHES: Well, the president’s speech was sent to all the, to the affected Cabinet agencies and the CIA for vetting, but the president’s speech is always sent to those agencies and to the CIA for vetting. It was sent there last year. This is sort of a sore spot for me because I worked on that speech last year, and the claims that the president made in his speech were all backed up by the facts as presented to our nation’s policy-makers, including committees in Congress and including the president, in the national intelligence estimate, and that’s where that came from, and that was the considered opinion of our nation’s intelligence experts.

And I saw one of them interviewed recently, and he said that, that really the evidence and information that we had about Saddam’s weapons, there was no sudden change. This was something that was developed over the course of 15 years, and both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Now, we have sent the president’s speech to the CIA, to the State Department, to the Defense Department. We have received input from all those agencies. I joke that after the attention paid to those 16 words last year that I imagine those agencies had their magnifying glasses out this year when they went over the speech, but we routinely, as you would expect, send the president’s speeches to those experts for their review.

RAY SUAREZ: And what would we expect to see tonight in the domestic arena? Some themes, some things he’ll be hitting on?

KAREN HUGHES: Well, the president will talk a great deal about the economy. As you know, the war against terror, the attacks on our country, exacerbated by the recession that President Bush inherited when he took office, all of those things dealt a heavy blow to our economy, and President Bush and Congress passed not once but twice stimulus packages to try to address and spur economic growth, and that is working. We are seeing strong growth.

The third quarter of 2003 was the strongest economic growth in 20 years. We’re seeing very encouraging news. Inflation continues to be low. Interest rates are low. Manufacturing is beginning to rise. The job creation is beginning to rise. And the president is going to make the argument that we are pursuing the right policies for economic growth, and to turn back now, as many of his opponents are … all of those opponents want to raise taxes in one way or another, and that would be exactly the wrong prescription. That would stifle the economic growth that is under way right now and that ultimately is going to produce jobs.

He’ll also be talking about the changes that we’re seeing in our economy. We’re becoming a more productive economy, and that means that our workers need to have higher skills, and he’ll talk about a program to make sure that our workers get the training they need for the jobs of the future.

RAY SUAREZ: Will the president be making some news tonight, laying out some new domestic programs, an agenda for the coming year?

KAREN HUGHES: He will talk about some new initiatives. I don’t think there are any, you know, earth-shattering surprises, but he’ll talk about things that are his priorities and are the American people’s priorities, things like continuing to make progress in education through the No Child Left Behind Act, which raised standards and insisted on accountability from our public schools, and he’ll talk about his plan to reduce costs for health care and to expand access and make sure that more Americans get the health coverage, health insurance coverage that they need while preserving our system of private medicine that has made our health care system the best in the world. So he will talk about that.

He’ll also talk about, during this enormous time of change — we’ve obviously seen great change in the international security environment; we’ve seen … we’re seeing fundamental changes in our economy as we become more high-tech and more productive — but during these times of change, there are some things that endure, some … the values that we try to live by, the important institutions like our families and like our religious communities, that those important institutions that are such a part of the fabric of American life, how we must all work together to rear responsible children and to make sure to help our children make responsible choices. So he will talk about that toward the end of his speech as well.

RAY SUAREZ: This is the president’s third full-length state of the union. How has the exercise or is the exercise changed by this being a national election year?

KAREN HUGHES: Well, I don’t really think it’s any different. Obviously this does come sandwiched between Iowa and New Hampshire, but this is … the State of the Union is a unique night. It’s an opportunity for America to pause and look at where we’ve been — and where we’ve been for the last several years has been really an incredible moment in history, an extraordinary time — and look at where we’re going.

And the president will talk about the time of challenge that we’ve been through and the choice that we now have to make, which is whether to go forward with policies that are making our country safer and more secure and stronger and that are making our economy … have returned it to growth and to job creation, or whether we want to turn back to the old divisions that really let problems fester. And so there is a choice ahead, and the president will urge the Congress to move forward with the proposals and the policies that we are seeing very positive results from.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the president is at the same moment the head of the country and a candidate for reelection. Is he hitting the road right after the speech?

KAREN HUGHES: I believe he is going on the road tomorrow to talk about some of the proposals in the speech, but that is, again, he is the president, and tonight he is speaking, as you know, before Congress, which is made up of both Republicans and Democrats. He is speaking to the American people, who are Republican and Democrat and independent and none of the above.

So this is a speech about the country and the direction of the country, and it’s the president’s opportunity to explain to the American people where he thinks we are and where he thinks we should be heading.

RAY SUAREZ: Karen Hughes from the White House, thanks for joining us.

KAREN HUGHES: Thank you, Ray.