Union Tribune

January 25, 2003 

State of Union will test Bush's sense of balance

By GEORGE E. CONDON JR. 
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE 

WASHINGTON When President Bush delivers his State of the
Union speech Tuesday night, he will address a nation much
changed from just one year ago when his audience was shell
shocked by terrorist attacks.

This time, with the country on the verge of war, the president
will be seeking to shore up support for his policies on Iraq while
persuading the nation he has the answers on the challenges
facing the economy and health care.

This time, there will be talk of spendin g more at home, most
notably a substantial expansion of Medicare, even as costs
continue to grow for war and homeland security.

"What a difference a year makes," said Lee Miringoff, director of
the Marist Institute for Public Opinion. "Last time, there was a
spirit of the moment, which elevated everybody. This time, the
task before President Bush is he has to do some convincing."

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer acknowledged the
difference. 

"One year ago we were still a nation in the middle of recovery
from the suffering of September 11th," he said. "A year later, the
recovery is a bit behind us."

Politically, the situation has also changed.

Democrats aren't hesitating to attack the president's initiatives,
particularly those involving the economy. They also sense the
public's growing doubts about Bush's Iraq policy, and even
before the details are known, Democrats are lining up to criticize
elements of the Medicare plan that are certain to be
controversial.

Bush's approval ratings have dropped from last year's speech,
which came only four months after the Sept. 11 attacks. He has
fallen from about 85 percent then to around 60 percent today,
according to polls.

Miringoff said the challenge for Bush is to "reverse the trend"
with a speech that deals with three areas troubling to many
Americans.

"He is really at a crossroads looking ahead to 2004 with the
economy, terrorism concerns and Iraq all very much on
peoples' minds," he said.

Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, said those
issues have "created a considerable unease and a sense of even
foreboding" heading into this year's address.

"We've seen it in a drop of support for him, though still high," said
Hess, who has closely monitored every State of the Union
address since he helped write one for Dwight Eisenhower more
than four decades ago.

"And he's got a special opportunity to put it all together and in
perspective with this speech."

Karl Rove, the president's top political adviser, told reporters
Bush understands the different circumstances he faces.

"Last year, the president saw the State of the Union as an
opportunity to explain to a very large audience of people how
different the war against terrorism was . . . ," he said. "This year
presents an opportunity to him to further explain the conflict,"
particularly Iraq.

The speech comes only one day after a United Nations report
from the inspectors trying to verify the status of Saddam
Hussein's efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Madeleine Albright, secretary of state for President Bill Clinton,
put the challenge to Bush bluntly:

"I'm confused, and the American people are confused, and I
think the people in other countries are confused," she said about
the rationale for war against Iraq. "They have to lay out the
case."

Aides hope Iraq does not crowd domestic issues off the agenda,
and Rove stressed that Tuesday's address "will not be the
definitive speech on Iraq."

Fleischer said: "There will not be a deadline for military action in
the State of the Union. There will not be a declaration of war in
the State of the Union."

Then he added: "There is an obligation on the administration to
discuss with the country information that gives the
administration cause for grave concern about whether Saddam
Hussein has disarmed."

Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, said
Bush will "provide the necessary context and explanation that
only a commander-in-chief . . . can give to the American people
at a unique moment in our history."

A year after he sparked controversy by branding Iraq, Iran and
North Korea as an "axis of evil," the president will talk with even
more urgency about the tensions on the Korean peninsula.

But aides expect foreign policy to take up less than one-half of a
speech now projected to last about an hour.

Bush advisers are painfully aware that the president's father was
denied re-election in 1992 when he was perceived as so focused
on foreign affairs that he was insensitive to pain at home.

They said the rest of Tuesday's speech will be devoted to
domestic matters.

Fleischer divided the speech into four parts: the economy and
job creation, "making America a more caring and compassionate
place," health care and national security.

Bush will make another pitch for his economic stimulus plan,
including the elimination of taxes on dividends.

The big-ticket item will be the proposed overhaul of Medicare,
giving the 40 million Americans enrolled in the program the
option of getting coverage for their prescriptions if they switch
to health maintenance organizations and other private health
plans.

There will be few details Tuesday on that issue. They will come
Wednesday when the president goes to Grand Rapids, Mich., to
make a speech on Medicare.

Presidential adviser Karen Hughes said yesterday that Bush will
stress the inaction of past presidents and past congresses who
have only talked about prescription coverage. His expansion of
Medicare could cost as much as $350 billion over 10 years.

"He thinks now it is time to act," she said. "He is going to make it a
priority."

A senior administration official working on the speech said the
president also wants to talk about "our compassionate agenda,"
of programs for children whose parents are in prison and others
"who hurt in America, who feel hopeless and who feel like the
American dream is not for them."