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Lowered Expectations Reflect Political and Fiscal Realities

By Dan Balz and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Coming off his most difficult year in office, President Bush used his State of the Union address last night to try to give his embattled administration a new start, speaking expansively about his aspirations for the final years of his presidency -- but offering a scaled-down blueprint for governing.

Bush begins this election year far weaker than he was a year ago. The most telling evidence came on domestic policy. Last year, he used his State of the Union address to launch an ambitious plan to restructure Social Security. This year, with that plan not even coming to a vote in the House or Senate, he called simply for a new commission to examine the impact of baby-boom retirees on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Instead, Bush put his domestic focus on the economy, health care and energy, problems of far more immediate concern to voters than the future of the government's retirement insurance program. If he hoped in 2005 to show he was grappling with issues of the future, last night he sought to reassure Americans that he understands why so many of them are unhappy with the direction of the country.

The president has never lacked for big ambitions, particularly in foreign policy, and he restated many of them last night. But his address lacked the rhetorical lift of some of his best efforts of the past, and the domestic policy agenda, although lengthy, included initiatives that have been around for some time.

In that sense, the speech was a reminder of how much the war in Iraq has drained the administration's energy and creativity, and how much it continues to define the Bush presidency. Before even turning to domestic issues, the president restated his determination to stay the course in Iraq, defended his controversial program of warrantless surveillance at home and issued another warning to Iran over its nuclear program.

Beyond Iraq, Bush's agenda is constrained by political and fiscal realities. Deep partisanship in Washington and the prospect of Democratic gains in the midterm elections lessen the likelihood of cooperation between the two parties on any issue of significance. Fiscally, the deep federal deficit and pressure from Republicans to cut spending restrain the president's ability to spend as significantly on domestic initiatives as he might like.

Down in the polls, Bush sought to frame the coming year as a time of potentially decisive choices on national and economic security, and he provided a vigorous defense of his policies at home and abroad, suggesting that his opponents would lead the country toward isolationism and protectionism. "We will choose to act confidently in pursuing the enemies of freedom, or retreat from our duties in the hope of an easier life," he said. "We will choose to build our prosperity by leading the world economy, or shut ourselves off from trade and opportunity."

He also pointed to two of his recent bright spots: the two newest members of the Supreme Court: Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who were visible in the front rows of the House chamber last night. Alito was sworn in earlier in the day after the Senate voted 58 to 42 -- largely along party lines -- to confirm him.

The humbling of Bush came in many forms last year. Slow progress toward stabilization in Iraq, Palestinian elections in which the radical Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, emerged victorious, and a growing threat from an Iran developing nuclear weapons have shown the limits of administration policies. Bush said he has "a clear plan for victory," but he offered no strong signal of an early return of most U.S. forces in Iraq.

Domestically, beyond the failure on Social Security legislation, House Republicans rejected Bush's immigration plan and Hurricane Katrina dealt a blow to the administration's claims to competence in the face of crisis -- while punching an additional hole in the budget. Republicans forced White House counsel Harriet Miers to withdraw her nomination to the high court. The tax-reform debate fizzled, and the administration walked away from the recommendations of the commission Bush had appointed.

Those setbacks forced White House officials to reassess a second-term strategy devised by White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove. The chief architect of Bush's reelection, Rove had studied second-term presidencies and determined that Bush should pursue major changes in the first year of the second term, before political pressures eroded his clout. Events proved him wrong.

After Bush's poll numbers plummeted, White House aides started rethinking the fundamental assumptions about second-term possibilities. Bush was forced to scrap his agenda and also curtail his ambitions. The president was advised to focus most of his attention on Iraq, the centerpiece of his presidency, and other foreign policy hot spots.

The political environment has changed, too. Instead of talking about a broad political realignment, White House aides are simply trying to help Republicans keep hold of Congress amid a flurry of scandals that include the indictment of Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), the former House majority leader, and the plea agreement by former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The result was a speech last night written with far more attention to the politics of the moment. On energy, Bush called for reduced consumption of oil from the Middle East by 75 percent over the next two decades with the use of new technologies and alternate energy sources. Notably, he never mentioned his earlier goal of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development, a small concession to the Democrats who have repeatedly frustrated him on the issue.

His health care proposals aim at expanding coverage and portability of health insurance, relative modest proposals at a time about 45 million Americans lack coverage. But he said nothing about the new Medicare prescription drug program, an initiative Republicans once hoped to trumpet but has angered many seniors in its implementation.

On the economy, Bush made another appeal to Congress to make his tax cuts permanent, an issue that his political advisers see as a key contrast with the Democrats. His competitiveness agenda, which the White House said will cost $136 billion over 10 years, includes proposals to train more science and math teachers and to boost investment in science research. He made little mention of Hurricane Katrina.

Republican strategists said that, although Bush hoped to boost his standing with the public, his other primary audience may have been GOP lawmakers calibrating whether to buy into his agenda or go their own way as they prepare for the fall campaign. Tom Rath, the Republican national committeeman from New Hampshire, said the party's elected officials are not interested in grandly ambitious initiatives this year. "Nobody wants to spend time in an election year to make an ideological statement," he said.

Republican pollster Bill McInturff said elected officials would be calibrating whether the Bush agenda will produce the kind of legislative results they can run on in November. "The president is on softer footing than he was a year ago, and he needs to lay out a legislative agenda that deals with issues of day-to-day concern, like health care costs and gasoline prices, and talk about the issues people care about," he said before the speech.

White House officials described Bush's speech as more philosophical than the typical State of the Union address, but at this point the philosophical outlines of his presidency are well known. What will count in the year ahead are the results his policies produce. Legislative achievements may help, but what will be even more useful for Republican candidates is a president who has regained the public's confidence. That will take more than one speech.

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