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War Now Drives the Presidency

January 29, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Though crowded with proposals for domestic initiatives, President Bush's State of the Union address Tuesday night underscored how thoroughly his presidency is being driven by the fierce engine of war.

Bush's first State of the Union address, in January 2002, was dominated by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks just four months before and his determination to extend the war against terror to what he dramatically termed the "axis of evil" -- Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

His speech Tuesday night was dominated by the prospect of military action against Iraq -- if not imminently, then before very long.

"We will consult, but let there be no misunderstanding," Bush said. "If Saddam Hussein does not fully disarm, for the safety of our people and for the peace of the world, we will lead a coalition to disarm him."

By offering an ambitious domestic agenda, Bush demonstrated again his desire to avoid the perception that undermined the presidency of his father, George H. W. Bush, after the 1991 Persian Gulf War: the belief that he is so focused on threats abroad that he is oblivious to problems at home.

But by so vividly reaffirming his commitment to confronting the Iraqi president, Bush also displayed a determination to force a reckoning with Baghdad that is likely -- for good or for ill -- to overshadow all of his domestic efforts for months, if not throughout his term.

Even the other members of the putative axis -- Iran and North Korea -- received little more than glancing discussion in Bush's brisk, sometimes somber remarks.

In some ways, the speech had a quality of deja vu. Almost all of its themes -- from tax cuts, Medicare reform and energy independence at home to the warnings to Hussein -- echoed priorities and promises from last year's State of the Union address.

Bush made a passionate pitch Tuesday night for his $670-billion tax cut, and urged Congress to move on a fundamental restructuring of Medicare.

He renewed his call for Congress to advance the energy plan that stalled in the Senate last year. And he unveiled a major humanitarian effort, calling for $15 billion to fight AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean.

All but the last of these ideas promise intense conflict with Democrats, who wasted no time in condemning Bush's domestic agenda as either irrelevant or counterproductive.

They argued that the gaping federal budget deficits that have opened under Bush, and the tax cuts he is proposing, will leave him without the resources to fulfill the promises he put forth Tuesday.

"The state of the Union is not as good as it should be, [and] I didn't hear tonight any realistic plans for making it better," said former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004.

As he begins these fights, Bush still enjoys substantial political support. But his position has eroded since his last State of the Union speech.

Though Bush's energetic campaigning helped the GOP widen its lead in the House and seize control of the Senate in last fall's election, the president's approval rating has fallen from 80% or higher in January 2002 to 60% or lower in a flurry of polls released over the last 10 days.

On Capitol Hill, the tax cut at the centerpiece of Bush's domestic agenda has received a cool reception, even from some Republicans, amid projections of massive federal budget deficits for years.

"The wind appears to be in his face, rather than at his back, on a host of issues," conservative activist Gary Bauer wrote in a memo released just before the speech.

In polls, Bush now receives much higher marks for his handling of national security and terrorism than he does on domestic issues, such as the economy and health care. But that wind has been blowing against him even on Iraq.

Over the last several weeks, polls have shown growing domestic unease about an invasion of Iraq, particularly if the United Nations does not endorse the move. Protests against a possible war have become more visible.

Yet White House officials have been confident that, beginning with Tuesday's speech, they can tilt opinion back in their direction, and even some Democratic analysts agree.

The White House optimism rests on three pillars.

One is Bush's demonstrated ability to shift opinion, as he did last September when he made his initial appeals to the U.N. for renewed action against Iraq. Second, both the White House and Democrats believe Bush will benefit from the traditional inclination of the American public to defer to the president on foreign affairs and to rally around the commander in chief, at least initially, when he commits forces to battle. Finally, they believe that Hussein will continue to provide evidence that he is unwilling to disarm.

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