What to expect from Bush's speech

In his State of the Union Wednesday night, he is likely to build on Iraqi elections to boost domestic initiatives, such as Social Security.

After an Iraqi election that came off better than most people expected, President Bush will deliver his State of the Union message Wednesday night with the wind at his back and a sense of fresh possibility as he seeks to press ahead with an ambitious domestic agenda.

The White House knows it must avoid another "mission accomplished" moment, in which it appears to declare victory prematurely, analysts say. And Mr. Bush can also be sure Wednesday night to stress, as he has already done, the tough road ahead in building Iraqi democracy and quelling the insurgency.

But in an administration that believes in the concept of political capital - that success in one area opens opportunities in others - the Iraqi election has been a godsend. Public approval of the Iraq war has been melting away and the president has faced pushback from a wary public and a powerful senior lobby over his proposal to partially privatize Social Security. For now, though, the president has earned some breathing room.

"He's the master of linkage politics and leveraging one issue into another," says Darrell West, a political scientist at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "In the first term, he was able to take the halo effect from 9/11 and turn it to his advantage on domestic issues," such as tax cuts.

Bush also can answer his critics on charges of stubbornness by stressing that he did not publicly waver on the date of the elections once it had been set. What Bush likely won't point out is that, in fact, at several key moments in his presidency, he has been willing to change course - such as over the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security and the 9/11 Commission, both of which he initially opposed. With Iraq, the White House hesitated to endorse an early vote, but went along at the insistence of the Iraqi Shiite leader, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

Regardless of how Bush actually maneuvers on issues, he has honed a public image of steadfastness - a point he has used to his advantage throughout his political career and which some see as a key element of his leadership. "That was really what he talked about throughout the campaign: 'Stay the course and we will be successful,' " says Professor West.

Wednesday night, Bush will pivot quickly to Social Security, which the White House calls the centerpiece of the speech. He knows he faces a wary public - and some balky Republicans in Congress, who have been hearing from constituents concerned about the idea of possibly lower guaranteed benefits in exchange for personal investment accounts. At a retreat in West Virginia last Friday with congressional Republicans, Bush offered assurances that he would make aggressive use of the bully pulpit and other public means to push through change, more than he did with the Medicare prescription drug plan.

"We've proven to the country we know how to set an agenda and work together to achieve it," he said in opening remarks.

To Republicans nervous about re-election in 2006, Bush could offer help with campaigning. To his television audience Wednesday night, the president faces a deficit in public opinion toward changes to Social Security, and will begin by stressing the system's future insolvency. According to Gallup Poll editor Frank Newport, most Americans don't see the system as being in "crisis," though a majority agree Social Security has problems. Half of the public says it wants Congress to act in the next year or two. Support for private accounts depends on how change is explained.

So while forces opposed to diverting payroll taxes into personal accounts have gotten out in front of the White House in defining the issue, it's not too late for Bush to come in and make his case. Bush has also put out word that he supports a phased-in reform that would lower the transition costs, and thus the added burden to the budget deficit. He is also discussing ways to limit the risks workers would face by putting retirement money in the stock markets.

Longtime Bush observers expect the president to put most of the focus on a few themes - Iraq, Social Security, taxes, and lawsuit reform - rather than deliver a kitchen-sink speech as some previous presidents have preferred. This sends a signal to Congress, and the nation, that these are his most important issues and, in effect, "here I come."

"His normal style, his Texas style, is to identify three or four major issues and then pound on them over the course of the Congress," says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "We'll see that Wednesday night."

Independent pollster Del Ali expects Bush to get a bounce in public opinion on his Social Security proposal, in part because the Democrats have yet to articulate a clear alternative.

"At a certain point, people say, 'I may not like his ideas, but at least he has ideas, at least he's trying,' " says Mr. Ali. He notes that in 1994, President Clinton earned two-thirds public support of his health-care plan after pitching it in his State of the Union message. By summer, the plan was dead. So the question is whether the Democrats and their allies are successful in promoting an alternative. "They can't sugar coat the fact that the system will eventually go bankrupt," says Ali. "If they do, they're dead in the water, and Bush gets what he wants."

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