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Bush expected to map modest goals for 2008

The Baltimore Sun

Washington -- President Bush says he wants to sprint to the finish of his presidency. He'll be in the starting blocks tomorrow night for his final State of the Union address.

Bush's agenda for his last year in office will include keeping taxes low and continuing the fight against terrorism, the White House said.

But in a nod to political realities, the speech will contain none of the big initiatives favored by a president who is frustrated by having to play what he derisively refers to as "small ball."

While questions about Bush's legacy have begun, "the speech is focused on the future," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

The annual address "will identify potential areas of agreement with a Democratic Congress," she said. "And these areas of common ground include new policy proposals with realistic chances of enactment this year."

In that regard, the year is off to an unexpectedly promising start. The president and House leaders agreed last week to a $150 billion economic stimulus package forged in a rare cooperative effort between Republicans and Democrats.

The president should try to extend the bipartisanship by announcing a willingness to work with Democrats to expand a popular children's health program that he has twice vetoed, said Gerald Pomper, a Rutgers University political science professor.

"He's getting beaten up on that," Pomper said. "And Republican candidates are getting beaten up on that, too."

But in an election year, and with Bush's job approval ratings in the mid-30s, it will surprise no one if the spirit of cooperation proves temporary.

Bush began his second term pledging to spend the political capital earned in his narrow 2004 victory.

The first payments went to an attempt to shift the Social Security system to the private sector by creating private accounts. More was spent last year, on trying to fix the nation's immigration mess.

Both efforts collapsed. The bank account is now nearly empty.

"Folks are pretty well Bushed out," said Jeff Fishel, professor emeritus of political science at American University. "It would be very, very rare for him to lay out a long-term legislative agenda over the next year, because he simply doesn't control it any more."

Sweeping policy changes such as Social Security reform are "not possible," Perino acknowledged, with a Congress entering its second year of Democratic control. Still, she said, the annual address will include several new ideas.

The president will also talk about ideas that can be adopted without congressional approval - through executive orders or administration action, the White House said.

Bush foreshadowed one proposal in an interview with USA Today, telling the paper that he wants to double funding for international HIV/AIDS relief to $30 billion.

The president will highlight the initiative next month, during a Feb. 15-21 trip to Africa, with stops in Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana and Liberia.

The Africa trip comes soon after the president's recent Middle East tour, which included his first visit as president to Israel.

"Presidents always do that at the end, because they can't get much domestically," said Pomper, the political science professor. "But they still are head of foreign policy. If you graphed it, you would see they spend a lot more time on foreign travel as they come to the end. Especially for someone who didn't travel to most of the world before he was president, he may as well do it for free."

Bush is expected to renew his call for an extension of the No Child Left Behind act, which he and his supporters see as a signature initiative. The president's allies want to cement his education program as part of a final "legacy year," according to U.S. News and World Report.

Backers of the president are reportedly hoping to use the coming year to boost Bush's job approval rating appreciably. Modern presidents not seeking re-election often see an uptick in their poll numbers as their tenure draws to a close.

Lyndon B. Johnson's ratings grew to the mid-40s from the high 30s in his final months. Ronald Reagan left office with an approval rating near 60 percent, and Bill Clinton's was over 60 percent.

But an effort has begun to prevent the trend from continuing.

Americans United for Change, a liberal advocacy group, is spending $8.5 million on television advertisements and other efforts promoting the darker side of the Bush presidency. The ads highlight the tenuous economy, high gas prices, the Iraq war and conclude with the message: "The state of the union must change."

More than eight out of 10 Americans think the country is in fair or poor shape, according to a Harris Interactive online survey released last week, up from seven in 10 a year ago.

Only 19 percent said the nation is in excellent or good shape, the survey found.

The president will undoubtedly deliver a more optimistic outlook during his speech tomorrow, even if Bush isn't prepared to talk about his legacy yet.

"When you work at the White House, there's not a lot of time for contemplation or reflection," Perino said. "And so he said that he doesn't know what it's going to be like when he gets up to the podium. Will he be washed over with feeling about this being the last State of the Union? He doesn't think that will happen."

david.nitkin@baltsun.com

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