It’s about the economy, and the war in Iraq, and other unresolved matters that have kept the nation on edge. But President Bush’s State of the Union address on Monday is something else, too: probably his last chance to seize the public’s attention and put it to use.
Bush will pressure Congress — particularly the Senate, where he senses trouble — to finish up an economic stimulus package fast. He will talk of improved security in Iraq and reassert that he decides when U.S. troops will come. He will offer some modest new ideas and recycle others as unfinished business.
The final State of the Union of the Bush presidency will be roughly split between domestic and foreign matters. Expect few surprises and no big initiatives.
To the degree the speech favors the pragmatic over the bold, the White House offers a two-word explanation: Blame Congress.
Bush’s efforts to overhaul Social Security and immigration died on Capitol Hill, but not just because of Democratic opposition. He also ran into walls put up by members of his own party. Heading into the speech, White House press secretary Dana Perino said it is unrealistic to expect Congress to take on big problems.
“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,” she said.
The White House strategy now is to go after what’s left of that elusive common ground.
Bush has 12 months remaining, and an even shorter window for legislation this election year.
So he will push Congress to pass some short-term economic aid and make permanent his first-term tax cuts, which are due to expire in 2010. He will call for housing reform, better health care and veterans’ care, alternative energy development and renewal of the No Child Left Behind education law.
The domestic section of Bush’s speech will also remind the nation of his ideas on climate change, faith-based programs and stem cell research. When he pivots to foreign matters, Bush will emphasize progress in Iraq, and repeat that troop withdrawals will happen when they won’t undermine Iraq’s success.
He will also comment on Iran, Middle East peace, the spread of democracy and the U.S.-led fight against disease and hunger in poorer nations.
A pervasive current of the address will be trusting and empowering Americans. It is a theme Bush has wanted to emphasize in a speech for months.
Of course, the buzz about town concerns the next presidency, not this one.
As long as he commands the military and retains veto power, Bush remains relevant. Yet his clout is slipping. That is the political reality given his approval ratings, which are near the worst of his presidency, and his outsider role in the campaign for the 2008 presidential nominations.
The top Democratic contenders, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, will be on hand. Those two alone will draw most of the reaction shots shown on television. A leading Republican candidate, Sen. John McCain, is staying in Florida, where Tuesday’s Republican primary will shorten Bush’s news cycle.
Ahead of the speech, top Democrats sought to frame expectations for it.
“As we await President Bush’s final State of the Union address Monday night we know one thing for sure: that cherished faith in America has been greatly diminished, and with it, our ability to respond to the critical challenges that threaten our security,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Bush’s tone will vary by topic.
On the economy, Bush is expected to praise the bipartisan deal that his administration brokered with House leaders. It would provide rebate checks to 117 million families and $50 billion in incentives for businesses to invest in new plants and equipment.
Senators, however, want to add elements, like boosting food stamp or unemployment benefits, that they say will produce more meaningful change.
The speech gives Bush a way to urge the Senate not to delay — an idea that might resonate with millions of anxious families.
Bush’s language is expected to be tougher when it comes to something else he wants from Congress: the extension of a law that allows surveillance of suspected terrorists. The current eavesdropping law, which allows government surveillance of phone calls and e-mails involving people in the United States, expires Friday. Bush is clashing with the Senate leadership over safeguards as well as legal immunity for companies that helped the government spy on American citizens.
The Senate is expected to take a key vote on the bill just hours before Bush speaks, so the White House may adjust the speech on the fly. Otherwise, the address is essentially locked down at roughly 45 minutes long.
Bush went through another practice run in the White House theater on Sunday, among the last steps of a process that lasts for months.
The making of the speech is highly collaborative, with a hands-on role by the president.
Near the end, as outlines turn into final drafts, Bush adjusts the wording in the Oval Office with speechwriters and other advisers.
“He’s a heavy editor,” said his chief speechwriter, Bill McGurn.
Bush will eliminate items he deems to be dropped in without logic — “cram-ins,” he calls them. He’ll even advise on placement of applause lines. Sometimes, language is cut because the rhythm doesn’t flow when Bush practices. He favors a direct approach.
“We obviously try to look for stirring language, but I don’t think you’ll get the stirring line if you look for it,” McGurn said. “If you aim for it, what you get is something tinny and false and fake, and everyone sees it. Our main goal is to take the policy, take the philosophy, and write it in the president’s voice.”