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Thoughts on the state of our union

Mitch Benson and daughter Kya

The president's State of the Union message is a tradition 216 years old. President Bush will carry on that tradition tonight with his sixth annual summary of the country's health and his goals for moving it forward.

But it doesn't take a U.S. president to weigh in on the nation's state or set goals for its future.

People right here in the Red River Valley have their own thoughts on the state of our union.

"On a day-to-day basis, we still feel like we're living in a pretty good place, surrounded by pretty good people," said Jennifer Benson, 30, of Fargo.

Benson and her husband, Mitch, also 30, have an important reason for a sunny outlook: a young and growing family. They have a 2½-year-old daughter, Kya, and are expecting another girl in April.


But as pharmaceutical sales reps, they also have to deal with the nuts and bolts of political issues. They see Bush's Medicare Plan D prescription drug benefit as a missed opportunity.

In fact, Mitch Benson called the current program "a mess and a debacle. ... We have to kind of manage it every day. We do see how big of a mess it is."

"They've got people making decisions on how many pills should be covered, and they're not doctors," Jennifer Benson said. "It needs to be put together better."

Breckenridge, Minn., grocer Russell Graves, 61, said the state of the union "depends on what economy you're in."

The country has developed two economies, one for the wealthy and a second for everybody else, he said. "There's getting to be too much of a division."

Graves describes himself as a conservative-leaning independent and said that as much as Bush tries to portray himself as a conservative, he really isn't. He wants to cut taxes but not spending, the grocer said.

As a small businessman, he is concerned about rising health insurance costs, for which he pays $83 per employee a week, and more all the time.

"It's hard for me to give pay raises when my insurance is going up," he said.


And it isn't just the bread-and-butter issues that have him taking a jaundiced view of government and how the country is doing, he said.

"The far left and the far right are trying to run the country," he said.

Some of those with the most direct stake in Bush's policies don't agree with the state of the union he runs.

Texan Sandra Scully, 19, who's staying with family in Fargo until April when she goes into Army advanced infantry training, thinks "the war could have been prevented, honestly."

Afghanistan is even more unstable than Iraq and is a worse problem, Scully said. "The fact that we're losing a lot of people is ridiculous."

That may put her in the thorny position of fighting in a war she believes is unnecessary.

"I have to do what I have to do," she said. "I'm for the government, but I'm not for the president."

Still, she said she doesn't really know how the United States can leave Iraq.


Ben Davis, 26, Fargo, said the Iraq war is the biggest issue for him.

"I don't think it's going the way they planned, but I think it's going better than it was a year ago," Davis said.

He worries that the Hamas victory in the recent Palestinian election could destabilize an already-volatile Mideast.

Still, he said, for the United States, "things are good, but I think the foreign issues are going to affect us. Compared to other countries, I think we're way ahead of everyone else."

Pocketbook busters like fuel and heating costs also need to be addressed, he said.

Chad Diamond, 33, a respiratory therapist from Fargo, said, "health care is a big one. Appropriate and cost-effective health care needs to be available to everybody. Being a middle-class type person, that affects me the most."

Diamond said he works at MeritCare and Innovis hospitals, which gives him a chance to compare the insured and the uninsured.

"It's a pretty easy comparison for me. You see people trying to manage their health care in a cheap way, saying, 'Is that really necessary?' "


Diamond's wife, Michelle McGarry, 33, knows what she doesn't want to hear anything about in tonight's speech: the government listening in on Americans' phone calls.

"I'm sick and tired of hearing about the spying," she said. "I really don't think (Bush is) trying to do anything to American citizens."

Linda Palmer, 48, a middle school counselor in Wahpeton, N.D., is disenchanted with the Iraq war and the economy.

In fact, she said with a laugh, "I liked it better when the biggest thing we had to worry about was Bill Clinton's sex life."

But like many people, she judges the state of the union by the issues that touch her most, like education.

"No Child Left Behind: Hate it," she said simply of Bush's biggest education initiative.

Its reliance on standardized testing simply does nothing for many children, she said.

And with a daughter starting college in the fall, the lack of money being put into education concerns her, she said.


Ed Lakoduk of Fargo - who, at 88, has seen his share of State of the Union addresses - is concerned about debt, both national and personal.

The country owes China money, but "we have a lot of things we can do in our country," like spend that money on disaster relief and aid to farmers, he said.

And "I think a lot of people are in debt," he said. "I don't know if they'll be able to survive.

"It's not a good deal. I don't hear a lot of good news anymore."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tom Pantera at (701) 241-5541

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