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THE NATION | THE STATE OF THE UNION : NEWS ANALYSIS

Bush Seeks to Capitalize on Wartime Spirit

Policy: He sets a tone of unity in fighting terror and hopes it carries along his economic and other domestic initiatives.

January 30, 2002|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Bush sought Tuesday to use the surge of national unity surrounding the war against terrorism as both sword and shield in the divisive battles with Congress over the rest of his agenda.

In a forceful State of the Union address, Bush not only portrayed the struggle with terrorism as his administration's defining mission but also tried to broadly extend the mantle of the war over his other goals. Even as he pointed toward potential new targets in the war--by heightening criticism of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as threats to American security--Bush also displayed a determination to apply his soaring wartime popularity to maximum advantage at home.

At times, Bush directly defined some of his other priorities--like building a national missile defense system--as part of the war effort. At another point, he moved to blunt mounting Democratic attacks on his tax cut by blaming the return of federal budget deficits instead on the cost of fighting the war. The war also inspired the boldest two new ideas in the speech: a call for greater human rights in the Islamic world and a summons to greater community involvement in the U.S.

More fundamentally, Bush repeatedly called on Congress to apply the "same spirit of cooperation" evident in the war to domestic issues, on which the administration and Senate Democrats have fought to stalemate.

The paradox is that Bush made the call for conciliation without signaling any substantive concessions on the key issues that have divided the two sides.

Bush reached out to Democrats with new initiatives in education and an expansion of the national service program launched under former President Clinton. But on the budget, economic stimulus, energy, Medicare reform, prescription drugs, missile defense and providing health care to the uninsured, Bush on Tuesday night indicated no shift in long-held positions that most Democrats reject.

The White House may be betting that Bush's popularity will pressure Senate Democrats to bend in his direction on the largest issues dividing them. But most Democrats insist that, despite the public's enthusiastic embrace of Bush's wartime leadership, they see little political danger in resisting his domestic agenda, even if the post-Sept. 11 environment demands that they pursue those conflicts less acrimoniously.

Tellingly, in the Democratic response Tuesday night, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) offered a mirror of Bush's speech. Gephardt pledged cooperation with the president at home and abroad, then immediately listed domestic priorities that clashed sharply with Bush's.

These contrasting impulses could produce a year in Washington of sustained schizophrenia: cooperation on the war and conflict at home. "Because the government is divided," predicts Bruce Reed, president of the Democratic Leadership Council, "there is only going to be progress where Bush and Democratic leaders can agree."

The evening was a measure of how much American life has changed since Sept. 11. The threat of terrorism dominated Bush's remarks and provoked stringent security precautions.

Bush himself was transformed as well: A year ago, he stood before Congress as the disputed winner of a razor-thin election. Tuesday night he returned with approval ratings topping 80% in most surveys and with praise for his war leadership from even some of his sternest critics.

Sometimes blustery, sometimes grave, he exuded resolve as he declared victory in Afghanistan and promised relentless pressure against terrorists and the nations that support them. Still, the speech lacked the drama and poetry of his address to the joint congressional session nine days after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Beyond insights into Bush's political strategy, the speech also provided an unusually revealing look at his conception of the presidency. Though Bush discussed his share of specific programs, the speech was predominantly organized around three large goals: pursuing the war against terrorists abroad, defending the homeland and invigorating the economy.

That focus was more than a rhetorical strategy; it also reflected the way Bush is allocating his own time and energy. "He always wants to talk in terms of a few fundamental priorities for the country that he is going to focus on and make happen," said one senior White House official familiar with the process of drafting the speech. "That's the way he organizes, that's the way he speaks and that's the way he leads."

The contrast with his predecessor, Bill Clinton, is instructive. It was revealing that Bush's speech last night clocked in at a brisk 48 minutes, compared with the 89-minute marathon Clinton uncorked for his finale in 2000.

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