By Peter Baker and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
President Bush plans to reach out to the opposition in his State of the Union address tonight with new and recycled proposals on health care, energy, immigration and education, but the uproar over his decision to send more U.S. troops to Iraq has eclipsed potential consensus on domestic policy.
As he addresses a Congress controlled entirely by Democrats for the first time since he took office, Bush faces deep skepticism inside the chamber, even within the House Republican leadership, which yesterday made proposals intended "to hold the Bush administration . . . accountable" for the progress of his latest Iraq plan.
The doubt on Capitol Hill reflects the continuing erosion of Bush's public support across the country. His approval rating is at the lowest level of his presidency, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, and only twice in the past six decades has a president delivered his annual speech to the nation in a weaker condition in the polls -- Harry S. Truman in the midst of the Korean War in 1952 and Richard M. Nixon in the throes of Watergate in 1974.
For the first time, majorities of Americans say Bush cannot be trusted in a crisis, has not made the country safer and should withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq to avoid further casualties rather than leave them until civil order is restored. And, in a sign of intensifying opposition, a majority -- 51 percent -- for the first time expressed strong disapproval of Bush's performance, compared with 17 percent who strongly approved.
"The world changed significantly on Election Day, and the only people who were surprised were them," GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio said of Bush and his aides. Now, he added, "they've backed themselves into a tough corner, and the problem is his continued insistence for the troop increase, which flies in the face of what 70 percent of Americans want, makes him look . . . like [he's saying], 'I'll listen to you, but I'll do what I want anyway.' "
The poll indicates that Bush has made no headway in selling his decision to bolster troop levels in Iraq by 21,500, with 65 percent now opposing it, compared with 61 percent the night of his Jan. 10 nationally televised address. Three in five Americans trust congressional Democrats more than Bush to deal with Iraq, and the same proportion want Congress to try to block his troop-increase plan.
Bush's overall approval rating of 33 percent matches the lowest it has been in Post-ABC polls since he became president, and 71 percent say the country is seriously off track, the highest such expression of national pessimism in more than a decade. By contrast, newly installed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is enjoying a honeymoon, with 54 percent approving her handling of the job.
While Bush will devote about half of tonight's 40-minute-plus speech to Iraq, the broader battle with Islamic radicals and other foreign policy matters, advisers said they understand that only sustained and visible progress on the ground in Iraq might change American minds about the war. The best Bush can hope for tonight, they said, is to prevent a wholesale defection by Republicans and buy enough time for his plan to work.
"He knows there's great skepticism," said a senior White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the speech before its delivery. "But in spite of that, he believes there's much to be done if we can work together."
Aides said Bush will not directly engage in a debate over congressional efforts to block the troop increase. But in private briefings for administration allies yesterday, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove said Bush will challenge Congress to put up its own plan if it does not like his "new way forward," according to people who were briefed.
Past presidents who found themselves facing an opposition Congress tried to tack to the middle after suffering midterm retreats. "This president, based on his speech last week, is taking the opposite approach," said Michael Waldman, a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton who heads New York University's Brennan Center for Justice. "The 2006 election was as close to a referendum on a president and issue as you get in our constitutional system. So for the president to move to escalate, it's very dramatic."
While recognizing differences over Iraq, Bush does aim to make progress with Democrats on domestic policy. The four main issues he will emphasize -- health care, immigration, energy and education -- are closer to Democratic priorities than issues in some past State of the Union addresses. And Bush tried to send a signal on the eve of the speech by accepting an invitation to address the House Democratic retreat in Williamsburg on Feb. 3.
"They're going to focus on issues and themes where they think they can get bipartisan cooperation," said Cesar Conda, former domestic policy adviser to Vice President Cheney. "It's a big difference from before, when he had a Republican Congress and the big issues would have been making the tax cuts permanent and reforming the tax code. It's a change in tone and focus. He's got to deal with the reality of a Democratic Congress."
Some of Bush's domestic discussion will sound familiar. He plans to repeat his call to overhaul immigration laws and allow illegal immigrants to become guest workers, an idea that may find more favor among Democrats than it did with Republicans last year. He plans to call for the extension of his No Child Left Behind education program, with modifications to make it more flexible, but will not ask Congress to expand it to high school as he did in the past.
The White House has previewed two new health-care proposals that will be in the speech. The first would make employer-provided health-care benefits taxable income after a deduction of $15,000 for families and $7,500 for singles. Officials said the plan would increase taxes for 30 million families whose benefits are worth more than the deduction but would provide a tax break to the vast majority of families with employer coverage as well as to 17 million people who purchase insurance on their own. The program would begin in 2009 and cost the government during its first years of operation but pay for itself by 2018, they said.
Bush also wants to redirect spending from Medicare, Medicaid and other federal programs toward new grants to help states ensure that everyone has access to affordable basic health insurance, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said yesterday. Leavitt did not specify a cost but said the new program would spur efforts already underway in states such as Massachusetts and California to provide coverage to people without health insurance.
The main uncertainty is what Bush will say about energy and the environment. Amid much talk about climate change and energy security, the president and his aides have promised unspecified "bold" ideas. Officials have ruled out binding caps on emissions of greenhouse gases, despite support among Democrats and some corporate executives who came to Washington yesterday. But they told allies that Bush will advance ideas for greatly expanding ethanol as an alternative to oil, and some insiders expect changes in fuel efficiency standards for vehicles.
Staff writers Dan Balz, Chris Cillizza, Christopher Lee and Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.