In Bush’s final State of the Union address, the familiar will trump the bold
Bush’s strategy reflects what he is up against: little time left in office, confrontational relations with a Democratic Congress and a diminishing role on the national stage. White House aides say there is not much point in unveiling grand ideas sure to go nowhere.
So don’t expect anything Monday on the scale of overhauling Social Security or immigration policy, two earlier initiatives that died on Capitol Hill.
„It is unrealistic to expect that this Congress is going to take on such big problems this year,“ White House press secretary Dana Perino said Friday. „They haven’t been willing to do it in the past several years; there’s no reason to think that they would do it this year. Remember, 2007 was labeled the „do-nothing Congress.“
Trying to get a jump on Bush’s speech, congressional Democrats challenged him to renounce the use of waterboarding in interrogations, announce he will close Guantanamo Bay to detainees and outline new policies toward Pakistan and Iran. „Our first goal as a country must be to restore that moral authority,“ said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
The economy will be a dominant theme, offering Bush one more chance to reassure a jittery nation that better days are ahead. He will start off with domestic matters and then move into foreign policy in a speech to run about 45 minutes, roughly in keeping with the length of his past addresses.
Barring a last-second change, this State of the Union will be about unfinished business – meaning items that Bush considers both vital and doable. The White House promises at least some new items, but nothing enormous.
There’s not much panache in rehash. But the White House line is that important ideas don’t lose value just because they haven’t been enacted.
Bush will ask Congress to make permanent the tax cuts that are set to expire in 2010. He will prod Congress to extend a law allowing surveillance on suspected terrorists, renew his education law and approve free-trade pacts with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.
He also is likely to recycle ideas on alternative energy, affordable health care and housing reform.
Bush’s inclination is to go for the kind of change that would last a generation or beyond, the equivalent of a home run. But not this time.
„There’s a bunch of singles and doubles you can get done in the last year,“ said Grover Norquist, a conservative strategist and anti-tax advocate with ties to Bush. „If you ask for more and you don’t get it done, then you fail. So why not ask for things that are accomplishable? It’s the last year, not the first year.“
Just in time, House leaders and Bush have reached a deal to put money in people’s pockets and pump up the economy. Bush could use his speech to nudge it along and hail a rare bipartisan partnership.
Shifting to foreign affairs, Bush will promote the U.S.-backed Middle East peace effort and his administration’s efforts to fight disease and hunger.
On Iraq, Bush is expected to tout security improvements and restate that more U.S. troops will come home only as conditions merit. Given the military progress there and the Democrats’ inability to force a change in strategy in 2007, he is in a different position this time around.
„A year ago, he was in a very precarious situation when he announced the surge (of U.S. troops). There were about 15 people in America who supported him,“ said Peter Wehner, a former Bush adviser who is a senior fellow at The Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. „Now there’s an overwhelming consensus that that’s been successful. So he’s got a story to tell there.“
This speech, however, will not be a retrospective on the seven years of Bush’s presidency. He is no fan of looking back.
His mission is to chart a course for what’s left and remind people that, yes, he’s still here and engaged. He was written off as a lame duck last year but then used his veto authority with great success, staying relevant and forcing changes in legislation.
Inside the White House, Bush’s advisers know the obstacles.
The legislative calendar is considered even shorter this election year. And despite a sudden interest in cooperation on the economic boost, Bush and the Democratic Congress are at odds on most matters.
„I predict that after hearing the president’s speech Monday night, Americans will be more convinced than ever that it’s time for a change,“ said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
Attention is fleeting. Within a matter of weeks, Republican Party voters will likely choose a new face for their party. Even those who pay only modest attention to politics are interested in whom the next president will be. Mere hours after Bush’s speech, the media focus will be on Tuesday’s Florida primary.
Meanwhile, Bush remains down in the polls.
In an Associated Press-Ipsos poll conducted earlier this month, only 34 percent of those surveyed said they approve of the job Bush is doing. That’s low for a president and about where Bush has been since the fall 2006.
Yet the State of the Union always commands some public attention, maybe more so now because of the widespread economic concerns.
It is perhaps Bush’s last good chance to frame the debate. In the East Wing of the White House, he is going through practice runs of his speech in the family theater.