The Incredible Shrinking SOTU

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 1, 2006; 11:45 AM

The run-up to the State of the Union was not exactly ideal for President Bush.

Every news outlet on the planet, it seems, ran a poll showing the prez somewhere between 39 and 42 percent on the popularity scale. (Is it news if you're the seventh one to publish such a poll?) Journalists endlessly recited the litany of woes plaguing the White House: Iraq, Iran, Hamas, Abramoff, Katrina, Plamegate, a vast, swelling tide of budgetary red ink, and so on.

Can one speech really turn this around? Even with yesterday's confirmation of Sam Alito (despite the notable total of 42 nay votes)? Do viewers pay as much attention to the Capitol Hill extravaganza in the sixth year of a presidency? (They did with Bill Clinton because the Monica story had just broken days earlier, but that was a bit of an anomaly.)

Or is the whole thing now a media production that will be forgotten within a week? I can't help but observe that much of what Bush called for last year--from Social Security privatization to immigration reform to an anti-gay marriage amendment--failed to materialize, and his much-debated vow to stamp out tyranny around the world quickly passed from the headlines.

My quick take on the speech:

"We will never surrender to evil"--who could oppose that applause line?

"Second-guessing is not a strategy"--well, okay, but isn't that a way of dismissing criticism from the opposition party?

We are "training Iraqi forces that are increasingly capable of defeating the enemy"--that remains, as they say, in dispute.

His warnings to foreign leaders had a wish-list quality: Hamas "should disarm," "reject terrorism" and recognize Israel? Great, but what's Plan B?

Bush again rebranded warrantless eavesdropping as the "terrorist surveillance program" and says we won't wait to get hit again. But he essentially sidestepped the criticism that it's illegal.

There were two brief bows to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, one a quick reference to "earmark reform."

Bush had less than I expected on health care, except for changes in medical liability insurance. What happened to all those leaks about health savings accounts?

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