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Inside Politics

Democrats: Middle class 'losing its place at the table'

Story Highlights

• First-term Virginia Democrat gives official State of Union response
• Education, health care, New Orleans first issues mentioned
• Economic disparity 'almost as if we are living in two different countries'
• Senator is Vietnam veteran, former Republican secretary of the Navy
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Congressional Democrats challenged President Bush on Tuesday night to take "the right kind of action" on the Iraq war and the economy, and promised to back him if he does.

"If he does not," Virginia Sen. Jim Webb said in the Democrats' official response to Bush's State of the Union address, "we will be showing him the way."

Webb's speech ignored other key issues Bush touched on - such as health care and energy - to focus on foreign policy and economic disparity. (Watch Webb talk about 'mismanaged war' Video)

Webb cited the actions of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, who took on economic imbalances Webb compared to today's, and Dwight Eisenhower, who brought an end to the Korean War.

"Those presidents took the right kind of action," Webb said, "for the benefit of the American people and for the health of our relations around the world."

Webb said the positive aspects of the American economy "are not being fairly shared."

He noted that wages and salaries are low related to national wealth, college tuition rates are high and much of the country's manufacturing jobs are heading out of the country.

"In short, the middle class of this country, our historic backbone and our best hope for a strong society in the future, is losing its place at the table," Webb said.

He touted the House's recent passage of a bill to raise the minimum wage as an example of the way forward.

"We've established a tone of cooperation and consensus that extends beyond party lines," he said. "We're working to get the right things done, for the right people and for the right reasons."

On the foreign policy front, Webb directed his remarks to the president's current strategy in Iraq and his plan to increase U.S. forces there by more than 20,000 troops.

Displaying a photograph of his father as an Air Force captain more than 50 years ago, Webb said that the nation's elected officials owe American troops "sound judgment, clear thinking, concern for (their) welfare, (and) a guarantee that the threat to our country was equal to the price we might be called upon to pay in defending it."

Bush went to war 'recklessly'

"The president took us into this war recklessly," he said, adding that Bush disregarded warnings from several current and former officials about the cost of the war in Iraq. "We are now, as a nation, held hostage to the predictable -- and predicted -- disarray that has followed."

The country has paid the price financially, in damage to the nation's reputation, in "the precious blood of our citizens" and in "lost opportunities to defeat the forces of international terrorism," said Webb, who was an early opponent of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and whose son is a Marine serving in Iraq's Anbar province.

Noting polls that show a majority of Americans opposing the war in Iraq, he said the country needs "a new direction." (Bush's approval numbers -- PDF)

"Not one step back from the war against international terrorism," he said. "Not a precipitous withdrawal that ignores the possibility of further chaos. But an immediate shift toward strong, regionally based diplomacy -- a policy that takes our soldiers off the streets of Iraq's cities, and a formula that will in short order allow our combat forces to leave Iraq."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid chose Webb to deliver the response in part because he's a Vietnam veteran and former Republican secretary of the Navy. His surprise victory over former Sen. George Allen, R-Virginia, helped lock up Democratic control of the Senate.

Pelosi and Reid issued a joint statement after the president's speech. They promised a vote to measure confidence in Bush's Iraq strategy.

"While the president continues to ignore the will of the country, Congress will not ignore this president's failed policy," they said. "His plan will receive an up-or-down vote in both the House and the Senate, and we will continue to hold him accountable for changing course in Iraq."

A prominent critic of the president's Iraq policy, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pennsylvania, said he wanted specifics from Bush.

"It's not enough to make broad proposals," Murtha said. "We need details of how we can get to where the president wants to take us."

Earlier in the day, Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean said Bush "should have thought about the consequences of failure before he went into Iraq."

"We need to end this misadventure in Iraq," Dean said on CNN's "The Situation Room."

"We need to do it carefully and thoughtfully -- we can't bring the troops all home at once -- but we need to go in the opposite direction from where the president wants to take the country," he said.

Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colorado, who is seeking the 2008 Republican nomination for president, sharply criticized Bush's proposal for an immigrant "guest worker" program.

"I am disappointed but not surprised that the president has once again chosen to trot out this same old pig -- albeit one with a slightly new shade of lipstick," Tancredo said.

"If there is one thing this president seems intent on demonstrating to the American public again and again, it is that he is utterly tone deaf.

"The president and his new Democratic allies in Congress seem hell-bent on cramming this mass amnesty down the throats of the American people whether they want it or not."

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who is considering a run for the Democratic nomination, said, "I think it's important to respond in a constructive way."

"But the last election proved that politics-by-slogan and poll-tested sound bites aren't going to cut it with the American people anymore, and that's why the real test of leadership is not what the president said to Congress tonight, but how he works with Congress to find real solutions to the problems we face."

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Virginia Sen. Jim Webb delivers the Democratic Party's official response to the State of the Union Tuesday night.

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