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Bush plans one last push for earlier priorities

The president will also promote an economic stimulus in his final State of the Union.

January 27, 2008|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Beginning his final year in office with low approval ratings, a Democratic Congress and a nation fixated on choosing his successor, President Bush is preparing a State of the Union speech for Monday that will accentuate unfinished business and lay out modest goals.

In his radio address Saturday, Bush said he would use his speech to urge congressional action to stimulate the economy and to authorize a warrantless wiretapping program that provides legal immunity for telephone companies that cooperated with administration surveillance efforts before laws were changed.

White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said Bush's speech would be "focused on the future" rather than providing a review of the president's seven years in office and would "reflect the president's mind set that he is going to sprint to the finish."

But the central policy measures Bush plans to highlight, according to senior aides, are issues that have already run into major objections: extending the eavesdropping legislation; perpetuating the 2001 and '03 tax cuts, and renewing the 2002 overhaul of education programs encompassed in the No Child Left Behind law, among others.

Bush was not presented with a draft of the speech, Perino said, until barely two weeks before its delivery, while he was traveling this month in the Middle East -- suggesting a less-than-intensive approach by the president.

But policy advocates across Washington -- particularly longtime allies uncertain about the reception they might receive from the next president -- have been busy seeking to gain a presidential nod in a phrase or sentence for their projects and goals.

The National Assn. of Manufacturers, for example, would like Bush to call for reducing corporate tax rates and seek greater federal funding for bridges, roads and railroads, said spokesman Hank Cox.

Cal Dooley, president and chief executive of the Grocery Manufacturers Assn., said his trade group wanted to see Bush call for greater funding for the Food and Drug Administration to increase inspection of imported food products.

White House officials acknowledged that the initiatives Bush would present would be relatively small policy proposals, some of which he could implement by executive order and avoid a tangle with Congress.

What aides called the president's "realistic" agenda will feature no new calls for past administration initiatives, such as overhauling immigration laws or Social Security.

Likewise, Bush is not expected to detail plans for operations in Iraq once the ongoing troop buildup ends as planned in July. A senior administration official involved in Iraq policy said the president was wary of preempting a scheduled report in March by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the Iraq commander, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad.

"I don't think we can expect that he'll foresee what Petraeus and Crocker might report in the spring, so I don't think we're going to get any forecasts," the official said, speaking in advance of the speech only on condition of anonymity.

Instead, said the official, Bush probably will reiterate recent themes, emphasizing that troops are not being replaced as they return from Iraq but warning of the consequences of a resurgence of violence.

Perino and other White House aides have emphasized that Bush does not see the speech as an opportunity to frame his legacy or to overcome negative assessments. By convention, the address is more a statement of themes and goals rather than a detailed look at the condition of the country.

But a president presenting the address in the lame-duck eighth year faces special challenges.

With few exceptions, "such speeches don't count for much," said Leo Ribuffo, a George Washington University professor of American history. This one, he added, referring to the president's final year, "counts least of all."

Bush's speechwriters did not have to look back far for guidance for this year's address. Ronald Reagan in 1988 told Congress: "Put on your work shoes; we're still on the job." Bill Clinton in 2000 happily reported that the nation had never enjoyed, "at once, so much prosperity and social progress with so little internal crisis and so few external threats."

But the closest parallel may have been in 1952, when Harry S. Truman was similarly dealing with deflated poll numbers, an unpopular war and dissent within his own party.

Speaking in terms the White House might find applicable today, Truman said: "The United States and the whole Free World are passing through a period of grave danger."

Truman urged political leaders in that election year to "conduct our political fights in a manner that does not harm the national interest."

Diana B. Carlin, a University of Kansas communications studies professor who has written about Truman's speaking style, noted what she called the sense of "deja vu."

"President Bush has a perfect opportunity to take a Truman-like approach," she said, noting he can highlight areas of agreement while encouraging the parties to "rise above" the politics of the moment.

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james.gerstenzang@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Peter Spiegel contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

A downward trend

President Bush's approval ratings in the Gallup Poll about the time of each State

of the Union address:

January 2002 ... 84%

January 2003 ... 60%

January 2004 ... 53%

February 2005 ... 51%

January 2006 ... 43%

January 2007 ... 36%

January 2008 ... 32%

Source: Associated Press

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