WASHINGTON - Congressional Democrats hit President Bush on Wednesday for his Iraq policies and planned Social Security overhaul, hoping a vigorous response to his State of the Union speech will fuel a turnabout from their election setbacks last fall.
The prime-time address offered center stage to the president. Democrats, though, were hoping their retorts would cast them as a moderate but energetic alternative to Bush and the Republicans who control Congress.
"We all know that the United States cannot stay in Iraq indefinitely and continue to be viewed as an occupying force," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in the televised response she delivered after Bush's remarks.
"Neither should we slip out the back door, falsely declaring victory but leaving chaos," said Pelosi, D-Calif. "We have never heard a clear plan from this administration for ending our presence in Iraq."
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who shared the response with Pelosi, said Bush's Social Security plans sound more like "Social Security roulette" than reform.
"Democrats are all for giving Americans more of a say and more choices when it comes to their retirement savings. But that doesn't mean taking Social Security's guarantee and gambling with it. And that's coming from a senator who represents Las Vegas," said Reid, D-Nev.
Reid said Bush should join Democrats in fighting for better job training, improved education and more affordable health care. Instead, he said, Bush has offered "the same old ideology."
Such issues "are about old-fashioned moral values that don't get talked about much in Washington," Reid said.
The comments seemed to underscore Democratic attempts to attract the segment of Americans who have told pollsters that morality is a major factor in how they vote.
"We can make sure America lives up to its legacy as a land of opportunity if the president is willing to join hands and build from the center," Reid said.
Pelosi spoke of having met with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and wounded soldiers in military hospitals.
"They remind us of our responsibility to build a future worthy of their sacrifice," she said.
The man whom Bush defeated last November, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., took on the president as well. He said, "Every American deserves a real plan to improve retirement security - not weaken it," and said Bush must do more to unite Iraqis and persuade other nations to help train an Iraqi security force.
"The greatest tribute to the memory of the fallen is an exit strategy called success," Kerry said.
Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said Bush "did not mention how many more lives will be lost because we still have no timetable for leaving Iraq. And he did not mention how his plans for Social Security dramatically cut benefits across the board and make the challenge worse."
House Democrats invited about 15 constituents - including senior citizens - to the House galleries as a symbol of their opposition to Bush's Social Security plans. Democrats also planned a news conference Thursday at a memorial to Social Security's father, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Reaching out to Hispanics, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., delivered a Spanish-language response to Bush's address Wednesday night.
Besides re-electing Bush, the Nov. 2 voting increased the small but decisive majorities Republicans hold in Congress. The GOP also ousted one of the most visible Democrats, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
That has left the lower-profile Pelosi and Reid among the party's leaders and forced Democrats to ponder what course will best help them regain House and Senate seats.
Many in the party think Bush has given Democrats a golden opportunity with his idea of letting beneficiaries divert some Social Security revenues to new personal investment accounts, and borrowing money to pay the extra costs.
"The president neither has the mandate he thinks he has, or a majority to make policy" because of worries by moderate Republicans, said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill. "He's making a mistake on both, which is overreaching."
Even so, Democrats were volunteering few detailed alternatives to Bush proposals. Reid told reporters that without a specific White House blueprint for overhauling Social Security, he saw no need for Democrats to offer "a counterplan to nothing."
Reid and Pelosi also accused Bush of failing to develop a plan for protecting the country from terrorism and said Democrats wanted more health, education and job training benefits for veterans.
Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Bush's speech paid little attention to education and other issues of concern to blacks.
"It's quite apparent this president lives in world just totally removed and unappreciative of the challenges millions of African Americans experience every day," Watt said.