Bush scaling down his agenda

The president's State of the Union address Tuesday night is an occasion to woo back voters, unveil low-risk initiatives.

Of all the audiences George W. Bush faces Tuesday night in his fifth annual State of the Union message - Congress, the American people, the world - perhaps the most important will be independent voters.

It is mainly they who left the president's side last year, telling pollsters in growing numbers that they did not support the job he was doing or feel the nation was heading in the right direction. Now those numbers appear stuck well below 50 percent, after a slight uptick last month.

The question for President Bush is, will "wooable" Americans be watching? And what can he say that will grab them and force a second look? In recent weeks, the White House has telegraphed the major elements of this year's speech: an initiative to make healthcare more affordable, ideas to reduce US dependence on foreign energy, a call to extend tax cuts. The defining issues of Mr. Bush's presidency - the Iraq war and larger war on terror - will also occupy center stage.

But according to the Pew Research Center, the public has modest expectations for this year's address: Only 30 percent of Americans say it will be more important than past State of the Union messages, down from recent years.

"What moves public opinion are big events; things just don't happen," says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center in Washington. "If things were to go swimmingly in Iraq, or if the economy were to take off like a rocket, that might silence Bush's critics."

One point is certain: There will be no big, expensive initiatives unveiled in this year's speech, on the order of last year's plan to reform Social Security. That proposal has been put on hold after Bush's campaign to promote partial privatization of the system landed with a thud. Tax reform was to be this year's major project, but that, too, has been set aside for now.

As Bush has added to the fiscal liabilities of the federal government over the course of his presidency - Exhibit A being the new Medicare prescription-drug plan - the deficit-hawk wing of the Republican Party has grown increasingly uneasy. Now that Judge Samuel Alito is on track for confirmation to the Supreme Court, pleasing social conservatives, fiscal conservatives are ready for a bow in their direction.

Even if big new federal programs are not on this year's agenda, advocates of smaller government will still be on the lookout for anything that smacks of the small-bore initiatives that became a signature feature of the Clinton presidency.

When Bill Clinton was president, the libertarian Cato Institute kept a tally during State of the Union speeches of all the new government programs he proposed. One year he hit 104 proposals. Under Bush, that number has dropped into the 30s, says David Boaz, Cato's executive vice president.

"But a lot of them are Clintonesque kinds of things - things like federal funds for maternity homes for troubled teens and the federal marriage initiative," Mr. Boaz says.

The White House bristles at the suggestion that Bush has been "reduced" to a Clinton-style presidency. Officials reject any hint of going the "school- uniform route," referring to Clinton's suggestion in his 1996 State of the Union address that schools require students to wear uniforms as a way to cut down on violence and instill values.

For Bush, holding back on any more large initiatives could be smart politics, as any more big, risky initiatives could put Congress in an awkward spot and jeopardize the GOP's majorities, analysts say.

Bush's nationally televised State of the Union address, probably his most-watched speech of the year, represents his opening salvo in the 2006 midterm elections. Bush enjoys the political fray, and intends to raise money for candidates and campaign heavily in districts and states where his presence could be beneficial.

The stakes are high: If the Republicans were to lose control of Congress, Bush's ability to pass legislation and gain confirmation for federal judges, including Supreme Court nominees, would be severely compromised. For now, generic polls show Democrats with an edge, and political observers are watching closely for signs that the voters might be angry enough about events in Washington to punish the incumbents.

"History is replete with examples of midterm elections that were pleasant interludes perhaps, but didn't tell us much about the future, and others that were harbingers of the future," says John Kenneth White, a political scientist at Catholic University. "I'm inclined to think we might have a harbinger here."

Bush's role in helping his congressional brethren may be to project a friendlier face than the snarling, partisan tone that has emanated from Washington in recent years. His aides promise a speech that is "visionary," not a laundry list.

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