WASHINGTON — When President Bush takes to the airwaves Tuesday night to deliver his sixth State of the Union address, the metamessage of the evening will be: "I am still relevant."
Of course, as commander in chief during wartime, Mr. Bush is central. But as he seeks to show that he is not consumed by the Iraq war and its high-profile retooling, this year's annual message to Congress takes on added significance. In an effort to grab public attention, he is promising a different type of State of the Union – not the usual laundry list of items from the forthcoming budget, but a more focused look at a few key initiatives, most of them domestic.
The irony is that, for the first time, Bush will be speaking to a Congress in which both chambers are controlled by the opposition. For him to implement any proposals, he must find the common ground with Democrats that has been so talked about since November. Even when Republicans controlled Congress, there were no guarantees; Bush's 2005 plan to partially privatize Social Security failed to get off the ground.
This year, the most extensively previewed plan centers on a tax reform aimed at making health insurance more affordable to low-income people. The proposal would also reduce the tax break for more expensive health plans. In addition, Bush's speech will focus on energy, education, immigration, and the war on terror.
But will anyone be listening?
Just two weeks ago, Bush delivered a major address announcing the "new way forward" in Iraq, including a plan to add more than 20,000 US troops to try to bring some stability to Baghdad and areas where insurgents are believed to be operating. The speech did little to move polling numbers on Iraq and the Bush presidency, both stuck below 50 percent. In recent days Bush has said he will address the criticism of his plan – including from fellow Republicans – in the State of the Union speech.
The president's job approval ratings have been mired mostly in the 30s for the past year, putting him in a league with some of the least popular US presidents of the 20th century, including Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Harry Truman.
Public satisfaction with the direction of the country has fared even worse. In the latest Gallup poll, released Monday, 35 percent reported they are satisfied "with the way things are going in the United States at this time" versus 63 percent dissatisfied. That number is better it was last month (30 percent) but about where it was one year ago.
Some presidential scholars are skeptical that Bush will really limit his penultimate State of the Union to just a few well-chosen ideas.
"I can't think of a point since his first run for governor in Texas where he didn't have a shopping list, where he wasn't thinking or acting on the notion that, unlike his dad [the first President Bush], he had the vision thing," says Fred Greenstein, a professor emeritus at Princeton University in New Jersey.
After all, a president who sets his sights modestly risks the dreaded label "lame duck." But after six years in office, most two-term presidents have already rolled out their biggest initiatives. The second half of second terms are more about completing unfinished business rather than starting something new. And it is debatable whether the bully pulpit is all it's cracked up to be, especially for an unpopular president.
"You've got a president who people know after six years, [and] you've got a dominant issue [Iraq] that people think they know after four years. So it's not like there's a lot of malleability there," says George Edwards, a political scientist at Texas A&M University and author of the book "On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit."
Bush now must also compete for attention with the rapidly expanding field of politicians who want to replace him in two years – including Democratic front-runner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who announced her candidacy right before this year's State of the Union on purpose, her campaign says.
And in another moment of irony, one of Bush's central themes Tuesday night will be the rising cost of healthcare – the policy issue that Senator Clinton became infamous for as first lady when she headed up her husband's ill-fated healthcare reform effort.
Tuesday night, Bush will propose that low-income people be given a tax break to help them afford health insurance. On the higher end of the scale, workers enrolled in more expensive plans would be taxed on coverage that exceeds a set limit. Some Democrats have already rejected the plan, calling it a tax increase on the middle class.
In his Saturday radio address, Bush focused on the relief his plan would provide to lower-income people:
"The current tax code encourages home ownership by allowing you to deduct the interest on your mortgage from your taxes. We can reform the tax code so that it provides a similar incentive for you to buy health insurance. So in my State of the Union Address next Tuesday, I will propose a tax reform designed to help make basic private health insurance more affordable – whether you get it through your job or on your own."