President Bush seeks to 'elevate the tone' through fifth State of the Union

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Hurricane, energy costs, Iraq war have combined to make 2005 difficult.

WASHINGTON -- President Bush, in his State of the Union speech today, will offer ideas for dealing with domestic problems like high energy prices and health care and international troubles like Iran's suspected nuclear ambitions.

The unspoken agenda underpinning the address, Bush's fifth, is the rescue of his presidency from arguably its worst year.

His poll numbers fell to the lowest point of his presidency under the weight of missteps following Hurricane Katrina, soaring energy costs, the withdrawal of a Supreme Court nominee, the failure of his high-profile effort to drive a Social Security overhaul, and increasing scrutiny from the public and Congress of the unpopular Iraq war.

While Bush's approval rating has recovered slightly, it remains in the still-anemic low 40s. It is a matter of concern for Republicans as they worry about maintaining control of Congress in this fall's midterm elections.

"I can't tell you how upbeat I am about our future, so long as we're willing to lead," Bush said at a photo opportunity Monday with his Cabinet. Referring to the bitter political tone in Washington, Bush said, "I'll do my best to elevate the tone here in Washington, D.C., so we can work together to achieve big things for the American people."

Unlike last year's focus on Social Security, an initiative that failed, Bush's emphasis will be more diffuse, with proposals aimed at taming health care costs, moving America away from its dependence on foreign energy sources, remaining competitive in the global economy, and getting the ballooning federal deficit under control.

Those four areas also are driving Bush's post-speech travel. The White House says Bush will give one major speech per week for the next four weeks and in each lay out one domestic initiative he introduces today.

Bush travels Thursday to Maplewood, Minn., to talk about competitiveness agenda. He also is traveling this week to Nashville, Tenn., Albuquerque, N.M., and Dallas.

McClellan said the State of the Union address has now gone through about two dozen drafts. The president had what was likely be his final two practice sessions with the remarks Monday morning in the White House's Family Theater.

Bush is expected to propose expanding health saving accounts, the high-deductible health care plan that allows Americans to contribute money tax-free to 401 (k)-like health savings plans, as well as greater tax deductions for out-of-pocket medical expenses.

On the global front, Bush said Monday that the United States and its allies were united in saying Iran must not be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon.

"We're working on the tactics necessary to continue putting a united front out," Bush said.

Democrats offered advance criticism of Bush's speech.

The chairmen of the Democratic campaign committees -- New York Sen. Charles Schumer and Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel -- dismissed the idea of health savings accounts and Bush's expected talk of bipartisanship.

"Each year he talks about bipartisanship and he is the most partisan president we've had," said Schumer, arguing that President Reagan worked with Democrats and President Clinton did the same with Republicans.

"He may say it, but the rhetoric will never match with the reality," Emanuel said.

On health savings accounts, Schumer said: "We believe that health savings accounts don't solve any of the health care problems. The uninsured are not going to be helped." He vowed to fight the president's proposal.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., took to the floor of the Senate to criticize Bush.

"Americans know our country can do better than today, and after the year we just had -- a year of Katrina, unending violence in Iraq, Terri Schiavo, Social Security privatization, Harriet Meirs, the Medicare mess -- Americans will no longer be willing to blindly accept the president's promises and give him the benefit of the doubt," Reid said.

"Empty promises will no longer cut it," Reid said. "We need a credible roadmap for our future. And we need the president to tell us how, together, we can achieve the better America that we all envision."

Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine was chosen to deliver the State of the Union response for Democrats. Previewing his remarks, he told The Associated Press, "I want to contrast what I consider to be an administration that is super partisan and not really able to deliver results with a different model, a better way, which is what we've been doing in Virginia and other states."

Message to Congress

--The Constitution requires the president to "from time to time give the Congress information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient."

--President Washington delivered the first such address, his "annual message," on Jan. 8, 1790.

--The third president, Thomas Jefferson, dropped the pomp that surrounded the early messages to Congress, denouncing them as speeches "from the throne." He dispatched his to lawmakers in writing, a custom that stuck for more than a century.

--Woodrow Wilson revived the practice of delivering the annual message in person. "A president is likely to read his own message rather better than a clerk would," he said.

--Calvin Coolidge's 1923 State of the Union was the first to be broadcast on radio, while Harry Truman's address in 1947 was the first to be televised.

--In 1935 the annual message formally became known as the State of the Union address.

--President Lyndon Johnson shifted the State of the Union speech from the afternoon to the evening to attract a larger TV audience.

--The address was postponed for the first time in 1986 following the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.

--President Clinton delivered his State of the Union address in 1998 just days after the scandal broke over his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The following year, his speech marked the first time a president addressed a Congress considering the possibility of removing him from office.

--President Bush did not give a State of the Union address in 2001, soon after being sworn in. Neither did Clinton in 1993, but he delivered a 60-minute speech to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 17, 1993 that was considered a stand-in.

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