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Address Will Depict Bush as Above Politics

By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 18, 2004; Page A14

A day after the Iowa caucuses reset the Democratic field, President Bush will ignore the campaign as he goes before Congress on Tuesday night to deliver his final State of the Union address before he faces reelection.

White House officials said they hope to use the televised speech, and its audience of more than 60 million, to foster an image of Bush as a wartime visionary who stands above the fray of politics -- the commander in chief, not a candidate.

Bush officials said they hope to extend that packaging to the early engagements of the campaign after the Democratic nominee is clear. They said Bush has no plans to hold an event declaring himself a candidate, even after his campaign begins running ads. President Bill Clinton used the same strategy in 1996.

The officials said that with the address wedged between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, Bush will try to draw a contrast with the Democrats -- sniping at him, and at each other -- by sounding forward-looking and emphasizing national triumphs.

According to Bush advisers, this is the gist of his speech, which will have solemn passages with an overall tone of optimism:

We are a nation at war. My bold decisions have made America safer, but we are not yet safe. At home, my administration's policies have made us better and more prosperous. But I am not satisfied, and Congress must pass more of what I have proposed.

Bush strategists have long been concerned that Americans would become complacent about confronting terrorism and would question whether it is a war. But the war on terrorism is Bush's justification for deficits, for the attack on Iraq and, to some degree, for his reelection. So skepticism by voters could obviate what his advisers think is one of his paramount advantages.

Bush said in his May 1 speech on the USS Abraham Lincoln that the war on terrorism "is not over, yet it is not endless," and declared, "We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide." Now, Bush wants to prepare the public for what one official called "a generational commitment," with the official likening the challenge to the Cold War.

"There are people who almost at times want to treat this as if we are not a nation at war, but we are," a senior White House official said at a briefing Friday. "It's happening in different cities and caves and countries throughout the world. It's very much a war."

Officials said the twin themes of the 9 p.m. speech -- which will run 50 minutes or so -- are national and economic security. The address then has modules covering, for example, the renewal of Bush's drive for workers to have the option to funnel part of their Social Security taxes into private accounts.

Another section covers Bush's plans to alleviate the rising cost of health care and increasing number of low-income people with no insurance. The Democratic candidates have put uninsured people at the top of their agenda, and the White House and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill are eager to neutralize the issue. Among the options that have been debated in the administration are a reintroduction of a tax credit Bush had proposed to help people pay for insurance, and grants to states to help administer what would be billed as universal coverage.

The speech will begin with a tour of the world, including a claim by Bush that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq made the nation safer. Advisers said Bush plans to make a big point, in the speech and during the campaign, of Libya's decision last month to surrender its chemical and biological weapons. Many in Bush's circle contend that the decision was spurred by the confrontation with Saddam Hussein, and see the agreement as a prize to compensate for the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Flipping the order of last year's address, Bush will build from foreign affairs to conclude on domestic matters, which polls show are a higher priority with voters. The economy has lost about 2.3 million jobs since Bush took office, but he will remind listeners about promising indicators, including a falling unemployment rate. He will point to the hurdles of recession, terrorist attacks and corporate scandals, and assert that his policies -- chiefly $1.7 trillion in tax cuts -- helped mitigate their effects.

Bush's aides said he will not be defensive about the progress in Iraq, where the U.S. death toll has reached 500, adding urgency to administration efforts to enlist help from the United Nations -- which it once shunned -- as the United States prepares to ends its occupation by July 1.

The official said Bush's speech will show he is "very comfortable with the decision we made" to unseat Hussein, and believes it was "good for the Iraqi people, it's good for the American people and it's good for the world."

Bush spent the weekend at Camp David editing the speech with Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., longtime confidante Karen Hughes, communications director Dan Bartlett and chief speechwriter Mike Gerson.

Card and Bartlett blanketed the Sunday talk shows before last year's address. But as part of avoiding the Democratic fracas, White House officials are staying off the programs this year, because they would be on with candidates, and most of the shows are originating in Iowa.

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