A presidential public relation blitz begins today as George W. Bush flies around the country to sell voters on politically risky changes to the Social Security system that were at the heart of his State of the Union address.
The speech, to a packed House chamber and a national television audience, was Mr. Bush's fourth - and the first to focus most heavily on domestic themes.
The president's call for Congress to take political risks "to strengthen and save Social Security" was arguably the night's most politically charged domestic topic. Mr. Bush urged creation of what he calls personal - and Democrats call private - investment accounts. Americans now age 55 and over would not be affected by the President's plan, a move clearly aimed at calming fears of politically potent baby boomers.
On foreign policy, the president hailed the recent elections in Iraq as opening "a new phase in our work in that country." He did not offer a timetable for American withdrawal from Iraq as some Democrats have urged. But Bush did note that,"we will increasingly focus our efforts on helping prepare more capable Iraqi security forces - forces with skilled officers, and an effective command structure."
The most memorable moment of the evening came when the president spoke about Janet and Bill Norwood, whose son, Byron, was a US Marine killed in the assault on Fallujah. Amid thunderous and prolonged applause for the Norwoods, Safia Taleb al-Suhail, an Iraqi woman whose father was assassinated by Saddam Hussein's intelligence service, hugged Mrs. Norwood. The Iraqi woman was first lady Laura Bush's guest in the House gallery.
The president also pledged to push for peace in the Middle East. "The goal of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace, is within reach, and America will help them achieve that goal," the president said. He singled out Syria and Iran as regimes that promote terrorism.
Wednesday's speech - which reportedly went through 17 drafts - was less lyrical and Biblical in tone than the inaugural address the president gave last month although Bush saw the two talks as related. "Two weeks ago, I stood on the steps of this Capitol and renewed the commitment of our nation to the guiding ideal of liberty for all. This evening I will set forth policies to advance that ideal at home and around the world," he said.
Now, the president and top officials from his administration are fanning out across country to sell his message on Social Security. Today, Bush visits North Dakota, Montana, and Nebraska. On Friday, the President will be in Arkansas and Florida. Notably, all the states the president is visiting have Democratic senators who will feel political pressure as a result of the presidential visit.
Also hitting the road in the sales effort: the extremely popular first lady. The president announced last night that Mrs. Bush also will be heading a new effort to help at-risk youth and combat gang violence. Other administration officials flying around to sell the president's Social Security plan: Vice President Richard Cheney, Treasury Secretary John Snow, and Josh Bolten, Director of the Office of Management and Budget.
The president's travels take him around a country that remains very much divided on his performance and policies. A new ABC News - Washington Post, conducted Jan. 26-31, shows the president has a 50 percent job approval rate overall. While some 87 percent of Republicans approve of his performance, just 14 percent of Democrats do. Perhaps most worrisome to the White House is that Bush's approval rating from independent voters is just 48 percent - 13 percentage points lower than Bill Clinton's eight years ago. It is not a particularly strong position from which to sell a sensitive revision in Social Security.
The White House describes what the president is proposing as "voluntary personal retirement accounts." These retirement accounts would start gradually. Yearly contribution limits would be raised over time, eventually permitting all workers to set aside 4 percentage points of their payroll taxes in their accounts.
The President did not say what a senior administration official admitted to reporters at a background briefing Wednesday afternoon - namely that personal accounts by themselves would not improve the Social Security system's solvency. Fixing a shortfall estimated to be at least $3.7 trillion would require steps like those the president said were "on the table" including benefit reductions for the wealthy, raising the retirement age, or changing how benefits are calculated to make them less generous.
Democrats got a running start on their response to the president in a what was called a "pre-buttal" when House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid spoke to reporters at the National Press Club Monday. In a televised appearance after the president spoke Wednesday evening, Mr. Reid and Ms. Pelosi hammered him on both domestic and foreign policy.
"The Bush plan isn't really Social Security reform," Sen. Reid said. "It's more like Social Security roulette."
Rep. Pelosi, called Sunday's elections in Iraq "a significant step toward Iraqis taking their future into their own hands. Now we must consider our future in Iraq." The California Democrat added, "The United States cannot stay in Iraq indefinitely and continue to be viewed as an occupying force. Neither should we slip out the back door, falsely declaring victory but leaving chaos."
Seeking to counter Republican criticism that Democrats are partisan obstructionists, Reid said, "I want you to know that when we believe the president is on the right track, we won't let partisan interests get in the way of what's good for the country." But he added, "when he gets off track, we will be there to hold him accountable."
Members of both parties think that the president's domestic agenda - including Social Security reform and limiting what Bush calls "junk lawsuits" - could help reshape the country's political landscape and might lead to a generation of Republican dominance.
A recent leaked White House memo talked about the battle over Social Security as one that "can help transform the political and philosophical landscape of the country." The private accounts at the heart of the president's speech are aimed creating what he calls an "ownership society." Republicans hope - and Democrats fear - that newly created "owners" will be more likely to vote Republican. Similarly, tort reform could hurt trial lawyers who have been longterm financial supporters of Democrats, thus helping stunt the party's fund-raising efforts.
Of course, the State of the Union address is part policy speech, part spectacle. Before the president arrived at the heavily fortified Capitol, lots of ladies in fur could be seen wandering the halls of Congress. Some of the fur was draped across the shoulders of the more elegant invitees to candlelight buffets in rooms across the Capitol.
Security was heavy with German shepherds giving the halls and corridors where the President and members of Congress would pass just one last sniff.
Republicans in the hall sought to remind television viewers of Sunday's elections in Iraq, the best news on the foreign front this administration has had since the Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled in Baghdad.
Placed discreetly behind a pillar in the Speaker's lobby just off the House floor: a plastic bowl of deep Aurora Liquid Tempura ink and piles of cleanup wipes. Freshman Rep. Bobb Jindall (R) of Louisiana, sent an e-mail to all 434 other members urging them to stain a finger before going into the speech tonight. "It's a symbolic gesture of solidarity," with the Iraqi people, he said.
So during key portions of the speech, Republican members could be seen waving their ink-stained fingers in support of the president.
Note: Gail Chaddock contributed to this story from Capitol Hill. Material from the Associated Press was used in preparing this account.