Watching for Tone

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Monday, January 30, 2006; 1:15 PM

No one in Washington seems to be expecting much new substance from President Bush's State of the Union address tomorrow night. So the big questions have more to do with tone.

Will the speech consist mostly of optimistic swagger -- or will there also be humility about the things that have gone awry?

How much will his characterizations of Iraq, New Orleans, the Medicare prescription drug rollout and warrantless domestic spying comport with the facts on the ground? And will he assertively address the concerns of his critics -- or attack straw-man arguments?

Will he make concrete attempts to reach across the aisle -- or just talk of bipartisanship while pillorying and provoking the Democrats?

Much has been written in the past several weeks about Bush's tentative forays beyond his protective bubble of aides and friendly audiences. Will his speech originate from inside the bubble -- where he has no patience for facts or opinions that contradict his own views -- or from the real world?

There's a lot of stuff in today's White House Briefing column. In addition to all the looking ahead to the State of the Union: The comedic stylings of the president at the exclusive Alfalfa Club dinner Saturday night; an eye-opening Newsweek story on the rear-guard action within Bush's own administration against the assertion of the president's virtually unlimited powers; a wide-ranging CBS News interview; the failure of New Orleans; and much more.

Tonal Options

Kenneth R. Bazinet writes in the New York Daily News: " What President Bush says in his State of the Union address tomorrow night may not be as crucial to his agenda as how he says it, according to sources familiar with the speech.

" 'He needs to demonstrate that he's in command and control and his path is the right one for the country,' said a Bush political adviser.

"Bush's sixth State of the Union speech will be about maintaining relevance during a midterm election year rather than just a traditional attempt to chart a course.

"Bush will try to strike a somewhat conciliatory tone toward Democrats and urge them to pursue bipartisanship, though his critics contend he ignored the opposition party with his appointments to the Supreme Court and his pursuit of a domestic spying program."

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "On the nation's biggest domestic problems, President Bush faces a clear choice as he approaches Tuesday's State of the Union address. He can make a political point. Or he can make progress against the problems. It's probably not possible to do both -- unless Bush wants to radically reconfigure his political strategy. . . .

"At times, the White House seems to welcome Democratic opposition. The greater the disagreement between the parties, the sharper the contrast Bush and GOP candidates can use to energize their core supporters at election time.

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