In State of the Union, Bush to begin framing legacy

Monday's address is expected to highlight improvements in Iraq, but not reforms for immigration or Social Security.

Joshua roberts/reuters
Preempted: Senate majority leader Harry Reid addressed Democratic concerns with the Bush administration on Jan. 25.

On Monday evening, President Bush will stand before a joint session of Congress and give a speech about the state of the Union – and perhaps about the state of his place in history, as well.

This doesn't mean that Mr. Bush's final State of the Union address will be a nostalgia-fest of retrospection. Bush, like his father before him, famously is averse to dwelling on the past.

But he's unlikely to unveil bold new initiatives, say experts, given his low approval ratings and the lack of time left in his term. At best Bush might push items already in the legislative pipeline, such as a revised No Child Left Behind education law, while claiming progress in Iraq and the war on terror – the most consequential events of his administration.

"Given his political situation, the task is to make the best case for his legacy rather than to set an ambitious agenda for his last year," says Thomas Mann, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

Administration officials insist that Bush's speech will be focused on the future. Twelve months is enough time to get some things done in politics, and Bush has often expressed a desire to "sprint to the finish," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino on Jan. 25.

Bush will highlight items of unfinished business that he believes should be priorities for the Democratic congressional leadership, said Ms. Perino.

These include the economic stimulus package, an item on which Bush has reached a quick accord with House Democrats, and updated warrantless eavesdropping legislation, a bill that's been the subject of heated partisan fights.

Bush will also mention some actions that he can take without congressional approval, via executive orders or other administrative action, spokeswoman Perino said.

President Bill Clinton often promoted such small-bore steps as a means of appearing dynamic despite facing a Congress controlled by the political opposition.

Notably absent from the speech will be the unveiling of new initiatives on immigration or Social Security reform, or similar big problems. Perino blamed the likelihood of congressional inaction for this omission – not waning political strength or the shortness of Bush's remaining time in the Oval Office.

On foreign affairs, Bush will highlight recent successes in Iraq, according to White House officials, and talk about the fact that US troops levels there will soon start to decline. He'll discuss the Middle East peace process and the prospect of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, and work in mentions of US aid in the fight against global hunger and disease.

"He's put all of his soul and all of his might into being president, and this year will be no exception," said Perino.

That might be one of the points of this year's State of the Union – the beginning of a push to present his overall effort as president in positive terms.

After all, few people still are looking to Bush for political leadership, says George Edwards III, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University. Only about one-third of the country approves of his job performance. A majority of Americans believe that beginning the war in Iraq was a mistake, according to many polls. Many voters have tuned out the White House to focus on the contenders for the 2008 presidential election, Dr. Edwards says.

"He's got very little political capital," says Edwards of Bush.

Thus this final State of the Union may be one of the chief executive's last chances to argue his case before the nation. He will likely present the recent decline in violence in Baghdad as evidence that he will pass an improving situation in Iraq along to his successor. He might hold up his stimulus deal with the House as an example of how he has worked to keep the economy humming along.

"To try to begin to set the rhetorical terms for judging his presidency in the years ahead – that's what [the State of the Union] may be about more than anything else," says Mr. Mann of the Brookings Institution.

Not that Democrats will allow these assertions to remain unchallenged. Democratic congressional leaders last week produced what they called a "pre-buttal" to the State of Union, in which, among other things, they challenged the president to renounce the use of waterboarding during interrogations and to close the Guantánamo Bay prison for detainees.

"Our first goal as a country must be to restore . . . moral authority," said Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada.

Bush is certain to argue otherwise. A president's early State of the Union addresses are usually used to present grand plans; his middle ones, to support his agenda and subtly attack opponents. But nearing the end of their time in office, presidents cannot avoid being retrospective, in addition to forward-looking, says Southern Methodist University professor of political science Cal Jillson.

"I do think he will argue for sustaining much of his earlier policymaking," says Dr. Jillson.

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