Is Anyone Listening?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, January 28, 2008 1:34 PM

President Bush has a lot to accomplish in tonight's State of the Union address. He needs to lay out a plausible agenda for his final year in office, justify a war that the American people overwhelmingly oppose, stave off a recession and persuade the nation and the world that he's not been a colossal failure.

But his biggest challenge may be getting anyone to pay attention in the first place.

Richard Wolf writes in USA Today that Bush will try to steal a page from Ronald Reagan's playbook: "Two decades ago, Reagan, in his last address to Congress, focused on legislation, not legacy. 'If anyone expects just a proud recitation of the accomplishments of my administration, I say let's leave that to history,' he said. 'We're not finished yet.'

"By year's end, Reagan had negotiated landmark trade, health care, welfare and immigration bills with a Democratic Congress and inked an arms deal with the Soviet Union. He also had helped pave the way for the election of his vice president: George H.W. Bush."

But, as Wolf writes: "Unlike Reagan, whose popularity hit a low during the Iran-contra affair in 1987 and was rebounding by 1988, Bush's poll ratings remain near their nadir. Americans concerned about Iraq now are worried about the economy. . . .

"'Any president has limited opportunities in the final months in office. That becomes particularly true when that president is mired in 30% approval ratings,' says Thomas Mann, a Brookings Institution scholar. Bush also will have trouble being heard above the din of the presidential campaign. 'This is not a talk to the nation, because the nation's not going to be listening,' he says."

Jack Torry writes in the Columbus Dispatch: "'This speech will have all the suspense of the 500th rerun of I Love Lucy,' said Jack Pitney, professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College in California.

"With Bush's approval rating hovering at 34 percent and most Americans focused on the intensely competitive race to succeed him, analysts are uncertain whether people will give anything more than cursory attention to the speech. They say there is little that Bush can say tonight to change the minds of those who either oppose him or support him.

"But some analysts suggest that the television audience might be larger than expected because Americans are gripped by anxiety because of the sluggish economy, the war in Iraq entering its sixth year and Osama bin Laden remaining at large.

"'The fact is the country is still at war and the country is facing a tough time economically with a great deal of uncertainty,' said Republican former Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio. 'Anytime you put those two things together, a president will continue to command attention.'

"David J. Leland, former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, conceded that Americans might watch but not for the reason Bush wants.

"'There's always a crowd around an accident,' Leland quipped. . . .

"'What can he say after seven years?' Leland asked. 'He's got to be the worst president ever. . . . If he just said, "I'm out of here," he would probably get the highest rankings of his administration.'"

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "For the first time in four years, he will come before Congress able to report some progress in tamping down violence in Iraq. Yet the public appears to have moved on from the war -- and possibly from Bush himself.

"The economy has supplanted Iraq as the top public concern, and with voters shifting their focus toward the presidential primaries, Bush faces a steep challenge in persuading Americans to heed his words on the war, economic policy or any other issue, according to administration officials, lawmakers and outside observers."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "With polls showing that the economy has eclipsed Iraq on Americans' list of most pressing concerns, Mr. Bush faces the unwelcome prospect that his legacy -- which the White House always assumed would be wrapped up in the war -- will be wrapped up in hard times instead. Like his father, he risks leaving office on an economic sour note, with a reputation for spending so much time worrying about foreign affairs that he forgot about the problems of ordinary Americans at home."

John D. McKinnon, Alex Frangos and Elizabeth Holmes write in the Wall Street Journal: "President Bush often has told aides that in the short run, history always gets it wrong. Tonight he is to give his final State of the Union speech, hoping to prove himself right -- and begin changing the public's current judgment of his legacy.

"With Mr. Bush's approval ratings near record lows, many Americans likely have tuned him out already."

Catherine Dodge and Hans Nichols write for Bloomberg: "George W. Bush, struggling to stay relevant in the twilight of his presidency, delivers his final State of the Union speech tonight with an urgent new mission: heading off a U.S. recession. . . .

"'Normally, these State of the Union speeches can be pretty drab,' [Leon Panetta, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton] says. Tonight's address is different because the 'the country is in deep economic crisis' and Americans are looking for answers from their political leaders. . . .

"It remains to be seen whether Bush's speech tonight, along with his current burst of economic activism, will improve his tarnished crisis-management reputation following his response to Hurricane Katrina or reverse the widespread perception that his economic policies are out of touch with the needs of average working Americans.

"Fred Greenstein, a presidential scholar and emeritus professor at Princeton University in New Jersey, says while a crisis poses an opportunity for even a weakened leader, the question for Bush remains whether he can 'provide a capstone to his presidency that will give the obituaries a more positive tone than just, "This is the guy who got us in a horrible mess."'"

Earmark Watch

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush took on Congress today over its appetite for special spending projects, announcing a new strategy of vetoes and executive action to cut the number of so-called earmarks in half during his final year in office and to open the rest to more scrutiny and debate.

"A spokeswoman who previewed Bush's State of the Union address tonight said the president has vowed to veto any spending bills for the 2009 fiscal year that do not cut the number of earmarks in half and said he will order agencies to ignore any projects listed in conference reports rather than in legislation.

"At the same time, Bush backed off a threat he made last month to find ways to reverse earmarks in a massive omnibus spending bill for the current fiscal year. 'The president has decided he needs to give Congress a very clear indication of what he's going to do,' White House press secretary Dana Perino said. 'The president will not go retrospectively back to the earmarks that were in the omnibus, but he will take these actions for 2009 appropriations.' The 2009 fiscal year begins October 1, 2008."

Baker explains: "The earmarks initiative attempts to continue recasting Bush as a tough fiscal conservative after spending policies mushroomed the size of government in the first six years of his presidency and alienated many in his party."

Trust the People?

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "Tonight's State of the Union address by President Bush had its origins in a conversation between the president and his small crew of speechwriters in late spring or early summer last year. As the speechwriters tell it, Bush called them into the Oval Office and told them he was interested in giving a speech about his governing philosophy.

"The theme was 'trust people to make wise decisions and empower them with better options,' said Marc Thiessen, a onetime aide to former senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). 'There never was really an opportunity to give it,' he added, 'and when the State of the Union came around, it just seemed to fit perfectly.'"

But is this really the right time for that message? As I wrote in my Jan. 15 column, Nation Wants a New Direction, polls show that an overwhelming majority of Americans -- 80 percent --- are eager to put Bush and his presidency behind them.

Poll Watch

What a long strange descent it's been.

The Associated Press looks at Bush's Gallup Poll approval ratings from around the time of each State of the Union speech. From 2002 to present, there's been a steady decline: 84, 60, 53, 51,43, 36 -- and now 32.

Iraq Watch

Abramowitz writes in The Post: "Perhaps the biggest question Bush faces about Iraq is whether he will go beyond this plan, under which U.S. troop levels are scheduled to fall from 160,000 to 130,000 by midsummer. Some generals in the Pentagon hope to pull several more combat brigades out of Iraq by the end of the Bush term to ease the stress on the Army caused by the conflicts there and in Afghanistan.

"Aides said Bush will not give answers about potential further troop reductions during the State of the Union speech, preferring to wait until he hears a recommendation from Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, this spring.

"But they said it is possible Bush may push back a bit against the Pentagon, making it clear -- as he did recently when he met with Petraeus in Kuwait -- that he is willing to stop the drawdown if he sees a security need.

"'He doesn't want to backslide,' said one of the administration's top officials on Iraq, who would discuss internal deliberations only on the condition of anonymity. The official said Bush wants to put Iraq 'on a sustainable basis' for the next president -- and will be careful about risking any recent security gains by leaving too few troops in place."

AIDS Watch

Note to my colleagues covering the speech: Bush will likely describe his $30 billion proposal for combating AIDS overseas as a doubling of federal funding. But it's not. As the program's own Web site makes clear, funding is currently $6 billion a year. So spending $30 billion over five years would simply maintain spending at current levels. (Actually, it would be a budget cut, if you consider inflation.)

Skutnik Watch

Ladies and gentlemen: The 2008 Skutniks.

As Jake Tapper blogs for ABC News: "Lenny Skutniks tell the tale of Mr. Bush's push for relevance."

Tapper explains: "Skutnik dove into an icy Potomac River in 1982 to save the life of the victim of a plane crash. President Reagan honored him with recognition at the 1982 State of the Union, and Skutniks have been a tradition ever since."

This year's crew "will include an Indiana mom who faced foreclosure on her home, an Army Staff Sergeant seriously wounded in Iraq but now home and his unit will not be replaced, the mother of a Cuban journalist who is held as a political prisoner, an ER nurse, an HIV-positive mother from Tanzania, the head of a university in Afghanistan, Bob Dole and Donna Shalala who headed the Wounded Warriors commission, and a hero of the Virginia Tech massacre."

Drinking Games

Lisa Friedman writes in the Los Angeles Daily News: "The state of our union is strong.

"I'll drink to that. And, come tonight, so will an entire subculture of young political wonks who have turned the hallowed annual presidential State of the Union address into one big excuse for a drinking game."

Previous Speeches

The Washington Post looks back on two of the initiatives Bush proposed in last year's address, regarding energy and health care. Peter Baker writes: "Bush used his speech to outline a plan to cut the projected consumption of gasoline by 20 percent over the next 10 years by expanding the use of alternative fuels and forcing higher fuel efficiency for vehicles. By the end of the year, after multiple twists and turns, it became the one major area where he and Congress agreed and enacted new policy."

Christopher Lee writes: "The most favorable reception that President Bush's proposed tax deduction for health insurance got on Capitol Hill last year was the GOP applause that followed the line about it in the State of the Union speech.

"It was all downhill from there, with administration officials falling short in their efforts to sell the idea to key lawmakers, failing even to get a committee hearing."

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "Bound together, George W. Bush's State of the Union addresses are a history of the ups and downs of his presidency, of the times he got his way and the times his hopeful oratory was just that.

"Last year, Bush implored a skeptical Congress to embrace his plan to send thousands more U.S. troops to Iraq. Despite growing gloom in the country about the war, Democrats failed to stop him or to set deadlines for troop withdrawals. The military buildup went ahead without impediment and is credited with lowering violence in Iraq, at least for now, even as progress in political reconciliation has proved disappointing.

"Some of the ideas Bush has pushed in the annual speech have fallen flat and even backfired.

"In 2005, he advocated an overhaul of Social Security, saying the program was 'headed toward bankruptcy.' It went nowhere in Congress. For three years running, from 2004 to 2006, he appealed to lawmakers to approve a guest worker program as part of a major changes in immigration laws. Members of his own party sabotaged the plan. . . .

"Sometimes, the State of the Union is as much about what a president does not say.

"In 2006, two paragraphs of Bush's address highlighted rebuilding work on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, which struck in the summer of 2005. Last year, he was criticized for not saying a word about the region that is still reeling from the storm."

Opinion Watch

James Carroll writes in his Boston Globe opinion column: "You and everyone you love are riding on a large bus. The bus driver, unskilled and careless, drives too fast, ignores traffic signals, and barrels off the road occasionally. Because the bus is huge, other vehicles swerve to get out of its way, with cars crashing repeatedly. But your driver just keeps going, leaving carnage in his wake. Naturally, you are terrified - but your reactions are irrelevant.

"Finally, the bus itself crashes, killing many. Miraculously, you and your loved ones climb out of the wreckage. A second bus is standing by, and you gratefully scramble aboard. The engine starts up, but then the bus lurches dangerously onto the road, going too fast. Only then do you see that this new bus has the same driver, and he has learned nothing. Welcome to the United States of America. And welcome to the annual State of the Union address."

Carroll sees last year's announcement of the surge as the equivalent of Bush "[leaping] to safety just as the bus goes off the cliff. We are a nation in free fall. The final insult is that, one more time, the driver gets to lecture us."

In a New York Times op-ed, Jacob Weisberg looks back at Bush's repeated assertions of compassion: "So often with Mr. Bush, compassionate government began and ended with the heartfelt public avowal. He was too distracted by war and foreign policy, and too bored by the processes of government to know if the people working for him were following through on his proposals. . . .

"The Compassionate Conservative will surely pay us a final visit tonight. He remains an appealing character, but a largely fictional one. I wonder how the last seven years might have turned out if he had actually existed. In the final year of a failed presidency, I bet Mr. Bush does too."

A Warm Embrace

When all else is lost, there is still Fred Barnes. The sympathetic Bush biographer and editor of the Weekly Standard scores yet another interview with the president, this one about how he decided on the surge.

"For an unpopular president facing a Democratic Congress ferociously opposed to the war in Iraq, it was a risky and defiant decision. Now, a year later, it's clear the surge has been a success. Violence is down, Baghdad mostly pacified, many Sunni leaders have abandoned their insurgency, and Al Qaeda in Iraq has been crushed (though not eliminated).

"The war is not over, nor have the Iraqi government's steps toward sectarian reconciliation between Shia and Sunnis amounted to much. But should progress continue to the point that American troops begin coming home in large numbers and Iraq emerge as a reasonably secure democracy, a possibility arises: that because of his surge decision, Bush not only won the war in Iraq but saved his presidency."

Barnes concludes that Bush had made up his mind about he surge by early November of 2006 -- more than two months before he went public.

"Though Bush had all but decided on a surge before the formal 'interagency review' began looking at new options on Iraq, the process wasn't a charade," Barnes writes. "It forced the president to consider alternatives. And it also involved agencies besides the White House--the Defense and State departments, the CIA, the Joint Chiefs. 'At a very minimum,' the president said, it made them 'feel they had a say in the development of a strategy.' In this case, a small say. . . .

"He was never alarmed, Bush said, by the opposition to a surge from nearly everyone in the political community, the media, and the foreign policy establishment--everyone, he pointed out, 'except for the people inside the White House I trust. We've been in this foxhole now for seven years, and we're battle-tested, hardened veterans of dealing with the elite opinion in Washington, D.C.'"

Trophy Watch

Time magazine reported in 2004 that Bush likes to show off the pistol Saddam Hussein was clutching when he was captured. It's mounted and on display in the small study off the Oval Office.

Now Barnes reports that Cheney has on display at his residence a piece of the house where Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the al Qaeda leader in Iraq, was killed.

NSA Watch

Ellen Nakashima writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush signed a directive this month that expands the intelligence community's role in monitoring Internet traffic to protect against a rising number of attacks on federal agencies' computer systems.

"The directive, whose content is classified, authorizes the intelligence agencies, in particular the National Security Agency, to monitor the computer networks of all federal agencies -- including ones they have not previously monitored. . . .

"The NSA has particular expertise in monitoring a vast, complex array of communications systems -- traditionally overseas. The prospect of aiming that power at domestic networks is raising concerns, just as the NSA's role in the government's warrantless domestic-surveillance program has been controversial.

"'Agencies designed to gather intelligence on foreign entities should not be in charge of monitoring our computer systems here at home,' said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. Lawmakers with oversight of homeland security and intelligence matters say they have pressed the administration for months for details."

FISA Watch

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "The White House warned Democratic leaders yesterday that President Bush would veto a proposal to extend an expiring surveillance law by 30 days, saying that Congress should quickly approve a Senate bill favored by the Bush administration."

Mike Allen writes for the Politico: "'The president would veto a 30-day extension,' a senior administration official said. 'They're just kicking the can down the road. They need the heat of the current law lapsing to get this done.'"

Glenn Greenwald blogs for Salon: "This veto threat is one of the President's most brazen acts ever, so nakedly exposing the fun and games he routinely plays with National Security Threats. After sending Mike McConnell out last August to warn that we will all die without the [Protect America Act], Bush now says that he would rather let it expire than give Congress another 30 days. He just comes right out and announces, then, that he will leave us all vulnerable to a Terrorist Attack unless he not only gets everything he wants from Congress -- all his new warrantless eavesdropping powers made permanent plus full immunity for his lawbreaking telecom partners -- but also gets it exactly when he wants it (i.e., now -- not 30 days from now). . . .

"The veto threat from the President is so unbelievably corrupt and manipulative that if our national press had even the smallest amount of critical faculties and understanding of the issues, that veto threat would be a major story. After all, how can the President possibly threaten the country that he will veto a law that he himself has claimed for months is indispensable for Protecting Us All?"

Liz Cheney Watch

While neither Bush nor Cheney have made public their views about the Republican presidential race, there is widespread suspicion that they both dread the possibility of either John McCain or Mike Huckabee becoming the nominee. The behavior of Cheney's daughter Liz -- often seen as a political clone of her father -- supports that contention.

Cheney first signed up with former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee -- but he dropped out of the race last week. Now she's joined Mitt Romney's campaign.

"Governor Romney is the only candidate who has outlined a comprehensive strategy for defeating the global Jihadist threat," she said in a statement released by the campaign.

Bush on Fox News

Fox News's Brett Baier describes his access to Bush for a documentary that aired last night: "We visited the president's ranch multiple times. With our cameras rolling, he drove me around for more than an hour, giving me a guided tour of landscape while he shared his thoughts on the war, the presidential race, immigration, family and faith. We started with a long interview outside of his office on the ranch and thought that might be all we would get. But, the president asked us to hop in his pickup truck and proceeded to drive me and one cameraman all over his 1,600 acre ranch.

"He also took me on the same rugged hike that he walks with world leaders when he's looking for a diplomatic breakthrough. It winds through the woods -- over a few streams -- until it reveals a huge dramatic canyon carved out of the limestone. The amazing thing is how quiet it is there. The president told me he's had some of his most poignant moments -- alone and with various world leaders in that very spot."

Among the top headlines: "President Bush conceded to me that he failed in his goal to be a 'uniter and not a divider.' The president told me, 'I'd say that I worked to be a uniter and it didn't work.'"

And: "In a series of revealing and personal interviews, President Bush told me that as he enters his final year in office, the past President he thinks about most is Abraham Lincoln. And while the president says he doesn't want people to think that he believes he's 'another Lincoln' he does likens his liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq to Lincoln's emancipation of America's slaves during the Civil War."

U.S. News has some more quotes from the interviews. Among them: "I tell people I want my Administration to have written a hopeful and strong first chapter in this ideological struggle that will play out over the course of your child's lifetime. And the best legacy a president can leave behind is to say to a dad, 'Your young son is more likely to live in peace as a result of the policies I've put forward.'"

Alfalfa Club Watch

Marissa Newhall writes in The Washington Post: "The annual dinner of the Alfalfa Club, an exclusive fold of about 200 rich and influential people, is an odd yet entrenched Washington affair."

At Saturday night's dinner, the members "came not only to schmooze but also to hear President Bush, who came with plenty of family members and delivered remarks to the club one last time as commander in chief. . . .

"'It was a moving evening with the president saying farewell,' said Landon Parvin, a longtime Alfalfan.

"Though Bush has eschewed many Washington social institutions, the Alfalfa is one that his entire family has always warmly embraced. Bush first spoke to the Alfalfa 10 years ago, when he was the governor of Texas, and has not missed a dinner since moving into the White House."

Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts write in The Washington Post with one of his jokes: "Earlier today, my sister Doro had a wedding shower for Jenna, who got lots of great stuff. Mom gave her a toaster. Karen Hughes gave her a Cuisinart. Dick [Cheney] here sent over a gift I could tell he'd picked out personally . . . a paper shredder."

Cartoon Watch

Ann Telnaes and John Sherffius on the stimulus package; Tom Toles on what else can go wrong.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive