George W. Bush’s State of the Union speech clearly signaled that he plans to run as a wartime, prosperity candidate. By setting the agenda this way, he is trying to force the Democrats to argue why one of them would make a better Commander in Chief and would be better at keeping a vibrant economy going.

To defend this program, Bush once again had to distort it, presenting the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq as a global coalition effort to enforce UN sanctions. He trotted out the mythic threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, except now reality tempered the lie. Gone was the nuclear capacity that threatened mushroom clouds over New York; now Iraq’s danger was that it had “weapons of mass destruction-related program activities and significant amounts of [concealed] equipment”–not quite on a par with last year’s warnings of imminent Armageddon. Explaining why the “war on terrorism” must continue, he conflated terrorist attacks in Bali, Jakarta and elsewhere with the conflict in Iraq–although all evidence suggests that Saddam Hussein, while a brutal dictator, maintained no working relationship with Al Qaeda. In one of the rare moments during the speech when reason prevailed in the chamber, a small round of applause broke out when Bush said–as a prelude to calling for their renewal–that “key provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire next year.”

On the domestic side, Bush proposes to take his already extreme policies even further, with permanent tax cuts for the wealthy placing a straitjacket on the budget and making any real domestic initiatives impossible. To give the appearance of caring about soaring healthcare costs, he again urged tax deductions for healthcare expenses and vowed to defend his prescription-drug bill. But that plan, a shameless payoff to drug companies, actually prohibits Medicare from negotiating a better price for seniors. The result, as Consumers Union reports, is that seniors will pay more for their drugs.

Bush hailed his education reforms and spoke compellingly about educating every child. In fact, he has been blasted by educators across the country for shackling school systems with arbitrary tests and standards and shortchanging schools on funds. As part of his empty “Jobs for the 21st Century” label, the President promised more money for community colleges, the very institutions taking it on the chin from the state fiscal crises on which he has turned his back.

Most remarkable, Bush celebrated the economy, claiming that permanent tax cuts will create more jobs and that his budget will “cut the deficit in half over the next five years.” The truth is that as many as 3 million jobs have been lost since Bush took office, and according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Bush’s budget claims are “essentially an accounting fiction,” with the true deficit calculated to rise from $374 billion last year to $500 billion in 2009.

Bush’s final remarks were clearly calculated to appeal to his conservative base. Calling for doubling federal funding for abstinence education and for passing laws that would lead to greater funding of religious groups providing social services, he saved his strongest, though carefully hedged, comments for gay marriage. Eschewing the “g”-word and including a vague call to respect individual dignity, Bush nonetheless gave his religious-right supporters what they crave, signaling that he would support a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

Although the speech was intended to highlight the President’s “homeland” concerns, his domestic menu suffered in comparison with the heated rhetoric dished up on war. Bush will gesture on schools, jobs and healthcare, but he’ll run as a wartime President, wrapped in the flag, invoking the courage of our soldiers, scorning his opponents as unwilling to stand the test. High-end tax cuts and pre-emptive war remain this President’s platform. The rest is packaging. And this fall, Americans will decide whether to stay that reckless course.