Iraq clouds Bush agenda

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- With Congress in Democratic hands for the first time in his presidency, his standing in the polls at a low ebb and even some Republicans criticizing his troop buildup in Iraq, President Bush faces formidable obstacles to promoting his agenda in tomorrow night's State of the Union address.

Bush wants to focus on a few key initiatives at home that can attract broad support and build a legacy that reflects well on him. But the simmering debate over the course of the war - ignited with new intensity by Bush's announcement Jan. 10 that he would send 21,500 more troops to Iraq - has limited his ability to influence Congress with fresh domestic proposals, strategists, analysts and lawmakers say.

"It'll be a major challenge," said Jane Elmes-Crahall, a communications professor at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania. "Almost anything he submits domestically for the agenda is going to be evaluated in the context of the Iraq situation. Everybody's going to be thinking in the back of their mind, 'Yes, but how can we be doing these other things when you are stepping up the commitment in Iraq?'"

The timing of this year's speech has presented a sharp challenge for the White House, which spent most of the past two months consumed with compiling a strategic review on Iraq and drafting Bush's prime-time television address on the war. Since the president announced his new Iraq plan, he and senior aides have spent hours in meetings with lawmakers, struggling to persuade wary Republicans and Democrats to support it.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said recently that the Iraq speech had delayed some of the "compositional" aspects of the State of the Union - the meticulous drafting and rehearsals - but added that it had not affected the substance.

Bush is aiming for a briefer, more tailored State of the Union address than in the past, aides say, in which he'll spotlight a few themes - such as promoting alternatives to oil, expanding access to health insurance, revising immigration laws and improving education - rather than a "laundry list" of proposals. The White House also is hinting that Bush will signal a new openness to measures to combat climate change, which he has steadfastly resisted in the past.

While he will mention Iraq in the context of discussing the "war on terror," the president does not plan to use the speech to rebut critics, said Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman.

Bush previewed some of his health coverage proposals Saturday in his weekly radio address, saying that he would announce tomorrow night a new effort to help governors reduce the number of people in their states who lack private medical insurance.

Democrats have worked hard to focus on Iraq ahead of Bush's speech. Party leaders say they want to work with the president on measures to develop energy alternatives, tackle climate change and improve education, among other issues.

But they have tapped freshman Sen. James Webb of Virginia - a former Marine who has been a vocal critic of Bush's policy in Iraq - to respond to the president's address tomorrow night.

"This war is costing us not only in human life but in missed opportunities to help make America stronger, and so it naturally dominates every debate, and it should," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate. "There are still important things we need to do in America, and I hope the president will indicate in his State of the Union that he supports some of our goals, but Iraq is hanging over all of this. It has to be acknowledged."

Bush might need to tweak his customary speaking style, with Iraq coloring the public's view of him, said Mark Davis, a former speechwriter for Bush's father.

"Since Sept. 11th, the president has fallen into the role of 'the decider,' this sort of 'coach' style of declarative speaking, where he tells us at halftime what we need to do. We're at a stage right now where people really want to know why are we doing this, what it's going to lead to and how we get there," Davis said. "Americans need some hand-holding, and they probably need to see some humility from this president."

Bush's challenge is similar to that of past presidents who, in the twilight of their terms, find that their "perspective gets narrowed to this little pinhole. In Bush's case, he's lost perspective because he's focused so much on Iraq," Davis said.

Some lawmakers worry that Bush might be so consumed by the war that he will find it difficult to gain traction for his domestic proposals.

"I'm very worried about it. No matter what we do overseas, we lose the war if America doesn't stay on a strong and progressive track back home, so he needs to balance the focus of Congress and the nation on things that we need to do here," said Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican who met with Bush at the White House this month.

The president is "talking to a Congress now where his party cannot control the agenda anymore. It's a real important speech to his administration" and to Republicans, DeMint added.

Bush wants to "emphasize the areas where you can work together," Snow said.

He might have a hard time engendering a spirit of bipartisanship, however, at a time when Democrats are attacking his war policy with abandon and adamantly resisting his goals of more tax cuts and private Social Security investment accounts.

"It's difficult, because here you have a Democratic House and Senate that are moving in opposite directions from what he wants to do, and it's not as if there's an obvious middle ground," said Grover G. Norquist, a tax-cut activist who consults frequently with the White House. "He can put out his vision, but that's not the same thing as marching orders or a call to negotiate."

Bush must draw some lines in the sand - such as an admonition against raising taxes and a call for the Social Security accounts - and hold Democrats to their commitments on reining in spending, Norquist said. But vital to this year's speech, he added, is that Bush utter a sentence about Iraq "in which the word 'leave' has to appear."

Still, some lawmakers hope the president will talk at length about something other than Iraq.

"There's no question that Iraq is the No. 1 issue, but many of us look forward to hearing what the president has to say on educational and health care and environmental issues," said Sen. Susan. M. Collins, a Maine Republican. "I think it'll be a comprehensive speech, and that's what I hope."

Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, said members of his party are eager to hear the president lay out guidelines on domestic issues.

"We understand there are a lot of things to be dealt with other than Iraq," Kyl said, "and sometimes we wish we could do that."

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