Bush address to thread the political needle

Goal is to seem to be above the midterm election fray, while actually controlling it.

As George Bush launches Year 2 of his presidency with his State of the Union message tonight, the question for the months ahead is: Will he be able to defy political gravity?

Because Year 2, of course, is also an election year with nothing less than the control of Congress at stake. The downward pull of partisan politics will be tremendous, as Democrats try to paint President Bush as absent or simply wrong on important domestic issues, while Republicans try to draw him into their highly competitive races.

That's just what Mr. Bush doesn't need if he wants to keep the country - and lawmakers - behind him on the war against terrorism, his No. 1 priority, say political observers. Neither is it likely that a stoop to partisanship would help his fellow Republicans cinch control on the Hill, they explain.

Next to the war on terrorism, the great challenge of the president's second year is to stay above the fray, says Thomas Mann, government expert at the Brookings Institution here.

"Presidents only hurt their parties at midterm," he says. "The question is: Can he minimize the hurt by keeping himself really popular?"

Mr. Mann is referring to that historical phenomenon in which the president's party almost always loses congressional seats in mid-term elections. No one knows this better than Bill Clinton, who was taken behind the woodshed and whumped by voters for his liberal excesses in 1994. The result was a turnover of both Houses to Republicans.

So far, it looks like Bush knows this, too. Expect tonight's speech to portray him as the unifying wartime president, keeping the nation focused on the bipartisan issue of security. However, he's giving a broad definition to that term so that his own agenda - which has met with considerable resistance among Democrats - fits the security paradigm. The word "security" doesn't apply exclusively to military or foreign policy, but to jobs, health, and energy issues, argues White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

When Bush headlined his first campaign fundraiser of the season earlier this month, he offered a glimpse of how he'll balance the wartime presidency with election-year pressures. In a milquetoast speech on behalf of his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, he never lashed out at the Democrats - though Al Qaeda received plenty of rhetorical punches. And he spoke of his brother and liberal icon Ted Kennedy in the same breath, saying they shared a "spirit" of bipartisanship.

It's his handling of the war on terrorism, and the nonpartisan way this has been done, that account for the president's sky-high approval ratings. Yet analysts point out that Bush must eventually deal with the country's domestic needs. And that's where Democrats believe they can legitimately attack Bush and the GOP and gain the edge in this year's elections. Nearly every nonwar item on the Bush agenda this year - whether it's his energy plan, his faith-based initiative for social services, or his prescription drug benefit - is being resisted.

And on the biggest issue of all - the economy - Democrats complain vociferously about a return to deficit spending that endangers Social Security and Medicare, while criticizing the White House economic stimulus as playing more to corporations and the long-term, than individuals and the short-term.

"The challenge for the White House is how can they keep up the crest of support that makes it seem as if Bush just walks on water ... [while in fact]moving toward intrinsically divisive domestic issues," says Fred Greenstein, a presidential historian at Princeton University.

Forrest McDonald, also a presidential historian, says the key is for the president to "soft-pedal on the one hand, but be very energetic on the other."

Indeed, while Bush tries to embrace Mr. Kennedy as his new best buddy, the president resists postponing tax cuts, which Kennedy has proposed.

Others suggest the trick is not how Bush handles his domestic agenda, but the agenda itself. Two of his priorities - Social Security and Medicare reform - aren't destined for action this year. Tax cuts and education reform have been done. While the war could still generate support for military reform, a stripped-down version of his faith-based initiative languishes in the Senate.

"I don't think he really has much of a [domestic] agenda. That's the problem," says Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst in Washington.

Meanwhile, although some observers are predicting election-year gridlock on the big, controversial issues, there is hope for some second-tier issues. No one wants to go to voters completely empty handed, and that's why, for instance, Kennedy has been working quietly with the White House on a compromise on the patients' bill of rights.

Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) also says he's trying to move forward on an economic stimulus package, suggesting a deal with the White House that cements what they agree on and discards what they don't. The president, says White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, considers the move "positive" but Bush still prefers a more comprehensive plan. Other issues said to be eligible for bipartisan action are a trade bill, a farm bill, and election-law reform.

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