The final quarter of George W. Bush's presidency has begun, and a big question looms: Can he achieve anything significant in his remaining time in the White House?
The Democrats now control Congress, a fact of life that was almost palpable when President Bush delivered his State of the Union address Tuesday night in the Capitol. Despite calls for common ground and an end to partisanship, powerful forces in both parties don't see reason for compromise. And the unprecedentedly early and active start to the 2008 presidential campaign leaves little breathing room for key players to work together, away from partisan pressures.
But there is some hope. Both the Democrats in Congress and Mr. Bush, each for their own reasons, need to show accomplishments. The Democrats don't want to lose control of Congress in two years, after fighting so hard to regain it. And Bush has his legacy and the Republican Party's image to consider. Polls show the public clamoring for an end to the intense partisanship that has dominated national policymaking since the 1990s.
The first half of Bush's State of the Union speech, that portion devoted to domestic policy, was crafted to identify areas of possible cooperation between the parties. In taking that approach, the president showed a clear recognition that the political environment has changed dramatically since his reelection.
"On healthcare and certainly immigration and on energy, there is a possibility that the two sides can meet again," says Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University in Washington. "A lot depends on the willingness of the president to compromise, and his willingness to share credit with the Democrats."
The 800-pound gorilla in the wider policy mix is Iraq. The war's unpopularity with the American people, and Bush's chronically low job-approval ratings, give him little political capital with which to work. The president's controversial decision to boost the US presence in Baghdad and Anbar Province by 21,500 troops may be absorbing whatever capital he has left.
Despite Bush's repeated pleas for Americans to give the plan a chance, including in the State of the Union, he faces increasingly bipartisan challenges to it in Congress. The biggest blow came on Monday, when Sen. John Warner of Virginia – the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee – introduced a resolution opposing the plan. Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee began consideration of a resolution rejecting Bush's plan, with strong support from committee Democrats and at least one Republican, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.
Even supporters of the plan are challenging the president over Iraq in ways unheard of before. One supporter in the House, Republican leader John Boehner, is calling for a monthly report from the administration that would gauge progress on military, political, and social benchmarks set for Iraq.
The fact that Bush spent fully half of his State of the Union address on Iraq, Iran, and the war on terror – after much advance focus on the speech's domestic initiatives – demonstrates how central these foreign-policy matters will be to the remainder of Bush's presidency.
Still, if the potential for success in Iraq in the next two years remains an open question, the president clearly wants to show that he is not consumed by Iraq and can address matters closer to home. Among other things, he said he would soon submit a budget plan that would run in the black after five years. He called on Congress to cut the number of legislative earmarks – special-interest items slipped into bills at the last minute – by half in this session.
But his two biggest domestic items were his healthcare and energy initiatives.
On healthcare ( see story), Bush called for legislation that would establish tax deductions for health-insurance payments worth $15,000 for families and $7,500 for individuals. Employer-financed benefits greater than that would become taxable income under this plan.
About 80 percent of workers with health insurance through their jobs would get a tax reduction, according to the White House, while 20 percent would see their taxes go up. Those currently uninsured might find healthcare within their reach.
"Changing the tax code is a vital and necessary step to making healthcare affordable for more Americans," said Bush.
Critics, such as Rep. Pete Stark (D) of California, chairman of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health, say that the poor pay little in taxes in any case, and thus a tax deduction is worth less to them than to wealthier Americans.
Representative Stark says he won't even consider holding hearings on the subject. Administration officials insist that critics' attitudes toward the proposal may change.
"This is a bold, new proposal. It's going to take some time for people to absorb it and to understand it," said Joel Kaplan, deputy chief of staff for policy, at a briefing for reporters.
On energy, Bush called for a 20 percent reduction in gasoline usage by 2017. "When we do that, we will have cut our total imports by the equivalent of three-quarters of all the oil we now import from the Middle East," said Bush.
This gas cut would be achieved mainly through a huge increase in the amount of ethanol and other alternative fuels blended into the fuel supply, under government mandate. The administration also proposed raising the fuel-economy standards for passenger cars.
An energy change of this magnitude would be huge. Producing the necessary ethanol could require the conversion of at least 30 million acres – possibly the biggest change in American land use since the Civil War, according to Steven McCormick, president of the Nature Conservancy.
"That will have serious implications for both water and soil quality and wildlife habitat," said Mr. McCormick in a statement. "It could also significantly raise the cost of gasoline impacting local economies."
In addition to substance, the atmospherics of Bush's address provided plenty of fodder for commentary among members. From inside the hall, the high point seemed to come when Bush and Nancy Pelosi (D) of California – the first woman speaker – stepped up to the podium amid tumultuous applause. After that, political reality seemed to set in.
"He was down. His heart wasn't in it. He overreacted to the number of Democrats. He's facing the last two years without a whole lot of pleasure," said Sen. John Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia.
Republicans looked for the silver lining in an evening that featured as much nonapplause as applause, as members sought to show displeasure at times by sitting on their hands. But it could have been worse for Bush, some suggested.
"He made it tough for his critics to be too hard on him by repeatedly emphasizing opportunities to work together and find common ground," especially on issues such as energy independence and health care, said Rep. John Shadegg (R) of Arizona.
• Staff writer Gail Russell Chaddock contributed to this report.