Bush's task in giving State of the Union

He'll have to use the speech to justify war with Iraq and reassure about the economy.

Last year, as President Bush prepared to give a State of the Union address in the wake of the worst terrorist attacks in US history, he was faced with the challenge of reassuring a nation anxious about security at home, a war abroad, and an economy that was in recession.

This year, his task may be much harder.

Not only is the country grappling with many of the same concerns - America is still under threat of attack, another war is looming, and the economy, though no longer in recession, remains flat. But Americans are also feeling markedly more pessimistic about the country's direction, and more skeptical about many of Mr. Bush's proposals.

The president's approval ratings, which hovered in the 80s a year ago, have dropped to the upper 50s. His ratings on handling the economy are even lower. And polls show many Americans do not feel the president has made the case for largely unilateral military action against Iraq.

At the same time, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans regard this year's State of the Union as more important than previous years' - a reflection, perhaps, of mounting concerns about the state of domestic and international affairs.

For Bush, it all adds up to a very different political environment, and one in which analysts say the public will be looking more for substance than rhetoric.

"When you look at the two main issues - the economy, and the war with Iraq - the public is really looking for leadership on both counts," says Carroll Doherty, editor of the Pew Report.

AT a recent Monitor luncheon, Karl Rove, the president's top political adviser, acknowledged that this year presents "a different set of challenges" from last year, which must be reflected in the speech. For one thing, while the centerpiece of last year's State of the Union was the war on terror, this address is likely to be evenly divided between international and domestic issues, he said, stressing that the president will "lay out a pretty robust domestic agenda."

That means, first, dealing with the economy. Bush is expected to further press his economic stimulus package of more tax cuts, including the elimination of the tax on dividends - even though the plan has gotten a tepid public reception so far, and Bush's ratings on the economy went down immediately after he released it.

Still, analysts say not to expect any changes in the plan at this stage. "The signals one gets from early critical reactions, even among some Republicans, to things like the economic stimulus package, are that they're not going to lead with concessions," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. "I expect them to stick to their guns during the State of the Union message, and save their concessions for later."

Bush is also expected to put forward a plan for a prescription-drug benefit, as well as a major proposal for Medicare reform. He's likely to touch on other domestic issues such as reform of the legal system, and giving faith-based community groups more access to federal funds.

In addition, Mr. Rove said the speech would "highlight the important international choices that face the country," but that it probably won't be the "definitive" speech on Iraq. In other words, while Bush is expected to press his case that Saddam Hussein poses a threat to the US, he's unlikely to declare war.

On Iraq, analysts say the president still has some convincing to do to convince the public that war would be justified, particularly in the absence of allied support. "Bush does not need to sell the public on the evils of Saddam Hussein: The public fully accepts [that]," says Mr. Doherty. "The problem is: why now and how?"

Iraq isn't the only foreign

policy issue the president will likely address. Polls show the crisis with North Korea is also a big concern among Americans - and Bush's handling of this subject may get extra scrutiny. It was in last year's State of the Union address, of course, that Bush famously designated North Korea as part of an "axis of evil" - a rhetorical formulation that critics believe helped provoke the rogue nation into a more aggressive posture.

ANALYSTS say Bush will have to explain why he is preparing for war against Iraq, which does not yet possess nuclear weapons, while using diplomacy against North Korea, which is believed to have them.

"My guess is that he'll finesse it, and act as if what he did was entirely rational," says Mr. Buchanan. Still, he adds, "He'll probably choose a different vernacular this time."

Rove acknowledged that the speech would at least indirectly follow up on last year's "axis of evil" reference, calling it "a chance for him to show what the policy has been over the past year, and what the policy will be in the coming months toward those three countries." But when asked if he'd care to reveal what this year's catch phrase would be, Rove paused for several seconds, and then said: "No."

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