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Archive for Monday, January 28, 2002

Economy may upstage war in Bush speech

January 28, 2002

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— No American needs to be told the current state of the union. "It is," one of President Bush's aides said, "a state of war."

Yet, when he stands before a joint session of Congress and the nation on Tuesday to deliver his State of the Union Address, the president will spend a significant portion of his speech not on the war on terrorism, but on the recession that has rattled America.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans have lost their jobs since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and public opinion polls show that, in the months since those attacks, pocketbook issues have replaced fear of terrorism as the No. 1 concern of most people.

"An enormous part will be dedicated to the fact that we're a nation at war," Bush's communication director, Dan Bartlett, said. But "it is also a nation in recession, and the president has been very forthright about the need of the government to focus on the economy and creating jobs."

Bush learned a hard lesson from his father, former President George Bush, who proved a president can win a war and still lose his job during an economic downturn, Bush aides said. And by dividing his speech between the war and the economy, the son intends to demonstrate to America that he has no intention of repeating the father's mistake, they said.

"This is not a typical sophomore State of the Union speech," Bartlett said. "It is a unique time in American history, and it is a unique time also from a standpoint of where the American people are. They are united in the cause of winning this war and really taking on the great challenges of this nation."

Bush's mission on Tuesday is dramatically different from that of his debut address to Congress last January, in which he laid out a fairly short list of priorities, or his September speech on terrorism, which marked his transformation to war president, said Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution.

"What (will) it tell us about what he has in mind for what is now his third presidency?" said Mann.

The "economic security" agenda Bush plans to lay out, based largely on tax breaks for business, will again put the president at odds with congressional Democrats, who continue to stand with him on the war on terrorism but, sensing an election-year advantage on domestic issues, have fought Bush vigorously on all other matters.

By taking on Bush over matters of tax cuts, prescription drug benefits, the minimum wage and the environment, Democrats hope to strip the president of the support of moderate-to-liberal voters who have sided with him since Sept. 11.

More significantly for Bush, however, is that the agenda he will be laying out will force him to move further from the doctrine of limited government that, as a candidate, he espoused along with the conservatives who helped put him in office.

Bush has already called for greater government involvement in education, job training and, in the wake of the collapse of Enron Corp., greater oversight of workers' pensions. Tighter airport security and a variety of other measures necessary to defend the homeland will only add to the number of ways government will be intruding on individual lives in the future.

Ross Baker, a political analyst at Rutgers University, is among those who believe Bush can get away with an expansion of government given that most Americans are telling pollsters they would welcome greater governmental activism, particularly concerning homeland defense.

"He was never as emphatic (in his anti-government rhetoric) as Ronald Reagan so he can always retreat to some of the soft rhetoric he's used in the past," Baker said. "But, again, he's sort of a born-again big-government guy, at least as far is security is concerned."

Bush views the handling of the economy as critical to his re-election fortunes as well as the fate of Republican lawmakers facing re-election this year, but his strong suit remains his role as commander-in-chief. For that reason, political analysts expect Bush to spend a great deal of time Tuesday and in the weeks following stressing the connection between security at home and the war abroad.

Bush is expected to exult in the success of the U.S. military in Afghanistan, but he also will caution Americans about remaining potential terrorist threats that remain in areas such as the Philippines and Iraq.

He also will urge Americans to remain patient and alert.

And while he is laying out plans for greater government activism, Bush will try to capitalize on the nation's newfound sense of community by calling on individuals to become more involved in the lives of their neighbors, their hometowns and with the front-line agencies that are combating terrorists, his aides said.

Few State of the Union addresses have proven memorable or have played significant roles in the careers of the presidents who delivered them. Yet, in a measure of just how much Americans have come to rely on Bush's leadership, the Pew Research Center found in a recent poll that 54 percent of Americans believe Bush's speech will be more important than such addresses in the past.

In contrast, only half that number, 27 percent, believed former President Bill Clinton's State of the Union Address was important in 1999, the year Clinton was embroiled in impeachment proceedings.

But if Tuesday's speech is important to the public, it is doubly so to Bush. He has had his aides working on the address for two full months.

But while the White House discussed a few details of Bush's speech, some matters remain closely held secrets.

It is virtually certain that Hamid Karzai, the head of Afghanistan's interim government, who visits Bush Monday at the White House, will be in the House gallery on Tuesday night.

But what's less certain is where Vice President Dick Cheney will be.

Traditionally, the vice president sits with the House speaker behind the president during the address. But Cheney remained away from the House chamber during Bush's address in September in order to ensure that he would be available to take control of the government should anything happen to the president.

Since then, Cheney has spent much of his time in a "secure undisclosed location."

So will he be in the House Tuesday night?

Said Bartlett, "I don't know if that's been decided yet."

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