Monday, Jan. 22, at 11 a.m. ET

Previewing the State of the Union Address

Bob Woodward
Bob Woodward (Win McNamee -- Getty Images)

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Bob Woodward
Assistant Managing Editor, The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 23, 2007; 12:30 PM

Assistant Managing Editor for The Washington Post and author Bob Woodward will be online Tuesday, Jan. 23, at 1:30 p.m. ET to preview President Bush's 9 p.m. State of the Union address and the rebuttal by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) that will follow.

Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

Read Excerpts from "State of Denial," Woodward's most recent book.

Woodward, a Post reporter since 1971, rose to prominence for his reporting on the Watergate scandal, for which The Post won the Pulitzer Prize. He has written or co-authored more than a dozen best-selling nonfiction books, including two others about the Bush administration: "Bush at War" (2002) and "Plan of Attack" (2004).

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think that the State of the Union Address is still relevant?

Bob Woodward: Sure -- but the Iraq war and the new effort to devise a strategy both are still Topic A, and it's not clear how much we're going to learn that's going to be new about those issues.

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Toronto, Canada: Hello Mr. Woodward,

What do you think the President will say tonight about Iran and Syria, and do you think that if these two countries play a major part in the speech, that could be an indicator of possible building sentiment in the White House for military action against one or both of them in the year to come?

Thank you

Bob Woodward: I think it's unlikely either will be mentioned that much because the president has rejected the Baker-Hamilton report's recommendation to engage both in active diplomacy. At least for the moment. I don't think we're going to have a new "axis of evil" speech as Bush gave in 2002.

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Richmond: With all the leaks about Bush's SOTU speech, it appears it will nibble at Iraq (apparently he'll make the same non-starter argument that what happens in Iraq affects our safety) but concentrate on his domestic agenda. Pardon my cynicism but is the domestic slant a calculated diversion to get the audience to clap and cheer about issues that resonate with both parties and make him look better than what he is?

Bob Woodward: The domestic agenda is nonetheless important, and I suspect a lot of people are anxious to hear what his plan and agenda might be. But the speech does come in the context of a very unpopular war, and he laid out his current ideas and strategy two weeks ago.

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Alexandria, Va.: Mr. Woodward, many thanks for taking time to do these on-line Q and A sessions. They are more valuable to the interested public than you might know.

I think the real pre-story might well be the selection of Webb to handle the Democratic response. Webb is certainly a passionate and vocal advocate, and is not one to hold his tongue. Depending on whether the President gives him enough openings to do so, do you expect Webb to walk in ready for combat?

Bob Woodward: Clearly, Sen. Webb's response will get a lot of attention, but I would not characterize it as "combat" as much as a serious, serious policy disagreement with the president. Public opinion seems to be against Bush -- even quite dramatically -- on Iraq. It will be interesting to see if Webb has any proposals or suggestions that are new and might resonate with those who oppose the war and moderates who are just as anxious to make sure that there is not a premature withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.

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Cincinnati: Do you think the Swift-Boaters will be back to discredit any of the Democratic presidential candidates, particularly Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama, for the 2008 campaign? Will/can they be as effective in 2008, or will they be outed/tracked sooner this time around?

Bob Woodward:"Swift-boating," or intense allegedly well-researched attacks on presidential candidates, are probably here to stay. In 1994, I wrote a book called "The Agenda," about President Clinton's economic policy, and the hands-on role played by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. I noted in the book that she was the de facto White House chief of staff, and if you read that book or other accounts of the Clinton presidency, I would say as former President George H.W. Bush is called "41" and the current President Bush is called "43," Bill Clinton is "42" and certainly Hillary Clinton was "42.5." (42 and a half.)

Her role in her husband's White House is going to be scrutinized, debated, examined and no doubt will be the subject of speculation. There's lots of fodder for those who would either praise or attack. What's important is, there's a voluminous record, so for the moment Hillary Clinton could be known as "42.5."

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Tolland, Conn.: Thanks for taking my question. From what I have seen of the president's personality, I am not surprised that he has opted for more troops in Iraq--any other approach would appear to be caving in to his critics. You could even argue from a personal standpoint, it might be the only chance (albeit a long shot) to save his legacy. But my question is if the Republican party sees this policy as being a disaster for the party and for the country, at what point do they go to Bush and tell him he needs to change course? And if they do, who would do it? And is there any chance Bush would listen?

Bob Woodward: That is a great question, and a similar situation occured in August 1974, when Sen. Barry Goldwater went to the White House to tell then-President Richard Nixon that he would be impeached and certainly removed from office in a Senate vote. Within 24 hours, Nixon announced he was going to resign.

If this gets to be a similar situation as the Iraq War becomes graver and the situation further deteriorates, the question is, Who is the conscience of the Republican party? Sen. John Warner, the Republican from Virginia who until recently headed the Senate Armed Services Committee, is already challenging the president's policy. The big question mark is Senator McCain and other Republican leaders.

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Scottsdale, Ariz.: It appears that President Bush continues to sink deeper into his state of denial. You have spent time face to face with him. Why do you think he refuses to take advice from Baker/Hamilton and others? For instance, the recommendation for diplomacy, including with Iran and/or Syria. My personal opinion is that he has some serious psychological hangups (similar to Nixon) when it comes to accepting responsibility for failure. The difference is that Iraq is far more tragic than Watergate.

Bob Woodward: People who strongly oppose the war don't necessarily want to hear this, but I have interviewed Bush for hours on the question of the Iraq war and there is a lot of idealism driving his decisions. He told me in late 2003, nine months after the invasion, "I believe we have a duty to free people" -- to liberate and bring democracy to other countries. He jumped in his chair in the Oval Office when he said this. The problem is, as I pointed out in my book, "State of Denial," he has not told the truth about what Iraq had become as the insurgent violence and sectarian violence have gotten totally out of hand.

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LaCrescent, Minn.: Hello. Traditionally, former presidents have exercised restraint when commenting about the leadership and policies of a sitting president. With Senator Hillary Clinton running for president in 2008, do you anticipate that former President Clinton will be vocal in his criticism of our current President?

Bob Woodward: Former President Clinton, I understand, supports his wife's candidacy and I'm sure will be "the first adviser" in the campaign. And if there is another Clinton presidency, (she would be the 44th president) he might become known as "44.5."

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Falls Church, Va.: I have read the Washington Post for forty years and I can reasonably say that since the Watergate articles you wrote, the Post has transformed into a muckraking newspaper whose main purpose seems to be finding fault and promoting cynicism towards established beliefs or entities both locally and nationally. Even the Post Ombudsperson a few years ago reported that the Post reporters seemed to be out of touch with American values. Care to comment?

Bob Woodward: The main purpose of The Post is not, as you suggest, to find fault and promote cynicism, but as Len Downie, the Post's editor says, to hold people who have power -- in government and elsewhere -- accountable. This "accountability reporting" is designed to examine, in detail, precisely what people do and why. If fault is found, it is based on hard information, documents and extensive interviewing. This kind of reporting and holding people responsible for their actions I think actually decreases the amount of cynicism in the country, because most people think politicians and others in power get a free ride.

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Rockville, Md.: My favorite part of the speech is watching the reaction of the audience -- which congressmen or dignitaries should we be watching out for to have the most wild expressions or responses?

Bob Woodward: There is a lot of theater in the State of the Union speech, not only on the part of the president but Senators and Congressmen and members of the audience, particularly those seated near or next to first lady Laura Bush, who know they might be suddenly on camera, so they probably tend to stage-manage their own responses and avoid picking their noses.

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Brentwood, Tenn.: If the president continues to disregard the feelings of the American public, as shown in the many polls, what can he hope to accomplish in his final two years in office?

Bob Woodward: He has a very hard road ahead of him, particularly on Iraq. The challenge in Iraq is not just to show progress but to clearly define some sort of exit strategy or timeline because the political system in this country will not continue to tolerate such an unpopular war with such high casualties. The political system at some point -- and no one knows when that might be -- will force a new, different resolution unless things get better. That may not be until January 2009, when a new president takes office. Under the Constitution, that's the one thing Bush, his admirers and his detractors can count on.

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Baltimore: Why has there not been any discussion of the fac that this supposed troop increase is not actually an increase when compared to troop levels last year?

Bob Woodward: The questioner is correct: There have been surges of 10,000-20,000 troops in recent years. The president and General Petraeus are emphasizing that the change is not the number of troops as an alteration or redefinition of the strategy so U.S. forces are more responsible for the security of the Iraqi population. We will see if it works.

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Springfield, Va.: Do you think if the latest troop escalation is a disaster, that the Congress will move to censure President Bush?

Bob Woodward: I haven't heard much talk at all about censure. A formal censure of a president or commander in chief at a time of war would be to my knowledge unheard of. But maybe somewhere in the past there have been such actions. I think it more likely that the hydraulics in the political system will create so much pressure that the president himself would alter course. But we'll have to wait and see.

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Mike (NYC): Would you care to lay odds on the President mentioning New Orleans and that sad state of the recovery effort? I say 3 to 1 against.

Bob Woodward: I'm not giving or taking odds, but if New Orleans is mentioned, I'm sure it will be some statement that progress has been made. I don't think New Orleans is likely to come up, but Bush always suprises.

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Chicago: How will the increase in troops affect the candidates for the 2008 presidential campaign?

Bob Woodward: In a big way.

Senator McCain, the Arizona Republican, has been urging more troops for a long time and if the situation in Iraq doesn't improve, people are going to wonder why he was repeatedly urging more force. At the same time, he may be able to argue that he would have sent still more. All the polling and discussions that I've seen show that the Iraq war is Topic A, B and C in the country, so the direction and daily events in Iraq are going to be a giant backdrop for the whole presidential campaign -- for every candidate.

The Democrats, especially Sen. Clinton, who voted in favor of the resolution granting Bush authority to go to war, are going to have to explain what they did, how they assess the situation now and what they might do as commander in chief.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Woodward, Thank you for taking the time to discuss tonight`s the State of the Union.

So far, this year`s State of the Union seems somewhat very similar to the last year`s one. Especially, if we consider the large focus on alternative energy, etc. Don`t you think that if President Bush wanted to approve his public rating he should be at least dicussing the issue that concerns both parties, Iraq, more honestly and not hiding behind the domestic issues?

Thank you for your answer.

Bob Woodward: Again, I think President Bush laid out his plan 2 weeks ago,and I suspect he'll make reference to it but not dwell on it. Don't overlook the importance of domestic issues in American politics and people's lives. Even though the war is central, there are other matters, and I suspect a dispassionate examination of the political situation would warrant some attention to health care, energy, taxes and other related matters within the country.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Woodward,

I have to say that I am confused by your answer to an earlier question. You stated that you felt that Bush's decisionmaking re. Iraq was driven to a certain extent by idealism. But he stated explicitly in numerous campaign events and debates in 2000 that the U.S. should not be in the business of "nation building." Beyond the hackneyed "9-11 changed everying," to what do you attribute such a 180 degree shift in world view and policy?

Bob Woodward: I've spent a number of years examining this question, and in Bush's mind, 9/11 did change everything. It is the pivot point of his presidency, and he argues either convincingly or unconvincingly that as president, it is his chief responsibility to protect the country. After 9/11, Bush and his war cabinet examined the question: What are the lessons we should learn from 9/11? The lesson the president, the vice president and others took away was simply "take care of threats early." In 2002-2003, the president deemed Saddam Hussein a significant threat. The available evidence shows that Bush believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. We now know that Saddam didn't, and that has pulled the carpet out from under Bush's core argument. The Iraq war is controversial not just because it has been long and violent and seemingly unending, but that the basic rationale disappeared. This is a reality the president has only acknowledged very reluctantly.

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New York: What are your thoughts on Cheney being absent from public view? He was the primary cheerleader/propagandist for this failed war in Iraq and now he is off in a bunker somewhere? Is he preparing for his upcoming testemony in the Libby case or just laying low, because he can only hurt the president?

Bob Woodward: I'm sorry, I don't know the answers to the questions. But lots of people are looking forward to Cheney's testimony. It will be well-reported and analyzed.

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Out of the Loop: Are there last minute rewrites going on with the State of the Union a la West Wing or is the President's speech pretty much down to a final draft by now ?

Bob Woodward: In the past, there have been up to two dozen drafts of President Bush's major speeches, and sometimes significant changes are made. For instance, in the State of the Union address in 2002, when the president identified the axis of evil as Iraq, Iran and North Korea, Iran was in and out of the speech a number of times, according to drafts I have seen or heard about. But I suspect the central matters of the speech have already been settled. But again, I emphasize: Bush frequently surprises.

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Cheshire, Ore.: How has this administration defined "winning" or "victory" in Iraq?

Bob Woodward: It's not at all clear, and that's one of the problems in the war. On a common-sense level, victory in a war is the sort of thing that you know it when you see it, but this war may be so complex and entangled in other Middle East, terrorism and domestic political debates that we won't recognize it if we ever see it. Several years ago, someone in the administration suggested to me that the president should have declared victory at the end of 2003 and simply said the two main goals have been achieved: Saddam Hussein is out of power and there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. As time goes on, that look like a better and better exit strategy.

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Newton, Iowa: Which of the announced Democratic candidates do you believe are running for Vice President?

Bob Woodward: They all say they are running only for president, but as we know from the past, one of them is likely to accept the vice presidential nomination. In fact, perhaps most of them would, because a lot of Democrats think 2008 is their year to win. But again, we'll have to wait and see.

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San Francisco: Given the President's lame duck status, low approval ratings, and open defiance by his own party on Iraq - Is there any real relevance to the SOTUS tonight or is it just an empty exercise in pomp and protocol? It just seems like the address pales in comparison to other major political stories in the last 24 hours - Warner's resolution on Iraq, the allegation of Cheney's instigation of Libby's obstruction of justice, and General Petraeus testimony to the Armed Forces committee in the Senate.

Bob Woodward: President George W. Bush still holds office, and if there's anything we've learned over the last decades, it's that the president has incredible, real power, so everything the chief executive says, intends and actually does is at the center of what's happening. I don't think Bush is overjoyed with the low poll ratings, but I also suspect he doesn't brood about them in the way some other presidents might have. Recall after the Baker-Hamilton report, the debate was, how are we going to start withdrawing troops from Iraq? But Bush surprised everyone except those who know him by deciding to add troops. So he still has the job and can make important decisions, but tonight is probably going to be mostly theater.

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Bob Woodward: Thanks for your good questions, and if there are any corrections I need to make to my comments after the speech, I'll return to the scene of the crime here on washingtonpost.com.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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