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President's Speech Will Stay Close To Home

Shifting his focus to domestic issues could help Bush find common ground with Democrats.

Trying To Bounce Back

January 23, 2007|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As President Bush prepares to deliver his first State of the Union address to a Democratic-controlled Congress tonight, he may be at the lowest point in his six-year presidency.

Yet on domestic policy, at least, the president may have an opportunity to revive his fortunes on several fronts, including healthcare, immigration and energy policy.

What that would take is a willingness by the president to work for compromises on Capitol Hill, even at the risk of displeasing the GOP's conservative base. And it would take a Democratic leadership willing to do the same with its base.

In past years, Bush has devoted roughly half his speech to national security and the "war on terror." But with his approval ratings well below 40% -- largely a result of Americans' dissatisfaction over the Iraq war -- this year he is expected to give greater emphasis to domestic policy, where he has the most opportunity to find common ground with Democrats.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 25, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 76 words Type of Material: Correction
State of the Union preview: An article in Tuesday's Section A previewing President Bush's State of the Union speech said the U.S. Chamber of Commerce opposed his idea for taxing some people with employer-provided health insurance to help fund insurance for those without. The chamber has not taken a formal position on Bush's plan, but chamber officials have raised concerns that the tax proposal could undermine the current system and deter employers from providing good benefits.

In 2001, Bush did reach out to opposition lawmakers in the months immediately after his election, securing passage of the No Child Left Behind education law that remains a hallmark of his domestic record. White House officials are suggesting that, despite increasing partisanship since then, Bush is once again open to compromise.

"He understands his obligation ... is to go ahead forthrightly [on] big problems and come up with solutions that not only are going to have political appeal, but they're also going to be effective in making life better for Americans," White House spokesman Tony Snow said Monday.

"When you have a Democratic Congress that came in two weeks ago saying, 'We want to get things done' -- we've got some offers that [are] going to be pretty good for them."

Both sides are expected to use the speech to send signals to the other -- the president with his words, and the Democrats with their applause, or lack thereof.

Forging compromises and persuading Democrats to join him in the effort will not be easy. Some analysts think it's too late for Bush to regain the confidence of Democrats -- or of much of the nation.

"People don't have confidence in him or his trustworthiness, and both of those undermine his ability to bounce back," said George C. Edwards III, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University. "This is the lowest point in his presidency, absolutely. It's almost the time of desperation."

Bush's approval rating averaged 37% over the last year, according to the Gallup Poll -- one of the lowest yearly approval ratings of any president since the organization started collecting such data during the Truman administration. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Monday put Bush's approval rating at 35%.

Those low ratings, combined with the "thumping" that Republicans took at the polls in November, mean that the president has much less political capital this year, said Thomas E. Mann, who studies White House-congressional relations at the Brookings Institution, a centrist think tank.

"The president is in an exceedingly weak position," Mann said. "He is not in a position to advance his agenda if it is any way controversial in the country or conflicts with the views of Democrats."

Bush is scheduled to deliver his speech before a joint session of Congress at 6 p.m. PST


A narrower focus

Some lawmakers are concerned that the shift in political fortunes -- and years of pent-up Democratic frustration with GOP hardball tactics -- could lead to a less-than-decorous atmosphere in the House chamber during the speech.

"I hope we won't act like children," said Senate Assistant Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). "The Democrats in the House, if they're not appropriately considerate of the president of the United States, then that will agitate those of us on our side, and then we'll respond in kind, and then the American people will turn us off."

Democrats, however strongly they are feeling their oats at the moment, say they do not intend to be disruptive.

"We've always been respectful of the president, and I would assume that would continue," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). "This is really his night to give us his view, and I think people generally make their views known through applause and non-applause."

White House aides said that instead of the traditional laundry list of subjects -- in which the president gives at least a brief plug for the favored programs of every Cabinet department -- Bush plans to focus on a few key issues.

"I just think some of the old State of the Union formulas have kind of run their course," Snow said.

This year, the speech comes just 10 days after the president delivered a prime-time address to the nation on the subject of national security, and aides say he does not intend to repeat himself. For instance, at a time of increasing tension between the Bush administration and Iran, foreign governments are likely to listen carefully to what the president says about that country and about Syria, another neighbor of Iraq.

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