updated 2/2/2006 10:11:07 AM ET 2006-02-02T15:11:07

Guests: Dana Milbank, John Dickerson, Craig Crawford

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST:  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

The State of the Union, the state of the president.  A year ago, he boasted of having political capital to spend and wanted us to be able to spend our Social Security cap.  Times change.  Tonight, the capital at the Capitol is spent.  The new project will reportedly be nuclear energy.

This begins Mr. Bush‘s sixth year in office.

How did Bill Clinton‘s sixth year work out?  Monica Lewinsky.  How did Ronald Reagan‘s sixth year work out?  Iran-contra.  How did Richard Nixon‘s sixth year work out?  Resignation.

Will this two-year-old sound bite hover over this sixth year?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  A wiretap requires a court order.  Nothing has changed, by the way.  When we‘re talking about chasing down terrorists, we‘re talking about getting a court order before we do so.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Also tonight, the injured ABC journalists are home.

After nearly two decades, the chairman of the Fed is going home.

And...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE O‘REILLY FACTOR,” FOX NEWS)

BILL O‘REILLY, HOST:  Shut up.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  ... fact or fiction, why the Big Giant Head is whining about us again.

All that and more, now on this special COUNTDOWN to the State of the Union.

Good evening.

Between the time of John Adams and Woodrow Wilson, it was considered unseemly for a president to deliver his State of the Union message in person to Congress.  Between the time of Harry Truman to about the time of Gerald Ford, it was one of the few occasions for a president to address his citizens uninterrupted on television.

But this question seems to loom in this hour before the State of the Union address from President George W. Bush.  Why do we still have this thing?  Apart from the shout-outs to his posse, of course, and the memorable phrases tonight‘s early front-runner, “America is addicted to oil,” unless the canine veteran of Iraq who will actually be in the audience this evening barks out something more compelling.

But is this speech really necessary?  Since his last State of the Union, Mr. Bush has had held seven televised news conferences and made at least six major televised addresses, the last just 45 days ago.  The White House not inclined to release a photograph of the commander in chief practicing for just any old speech, but only the script is constitutionally mandated, the reading aloud part not required, merely tradition.

The traditional chance, then, for the American TV viewing public to say, remote controls in hand, Is this on every channel?

Contained within past speeches, nuggets of gold for those enjoying the benefits of hindsight, the 2002 address introducing the phrase “axis of evil,” just as relevant tonight.  The United States approaching year four at war in Iraq, one of the countries designated by President Bush as part of that axis in ‘02.  The U.N.‘s nuclear watchdog agency confirming today that another axis-branded nation,  Iran, has begun prep work on building a nuclear weapon.  No actual building yet.

The White House releasing a few excerpts in advance of tonight‘s address.  From a security standpoint, the president retreading familiar ground, with a variation of the “We need to fight them there so we will not have to fight them here” chestnut.  And irony alert, Mr. Bush planning to say that this nation has a petroleum-abuse problem.  Quoting, “America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.  The best way to break this addiction is through technology.”

Counting down with us tonight, “Washington Post” national political reporter Dana Milbank, joining us from the Russell Rotunda at the Capitol.

Good evening, Dana.

DANA MILBANK, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, “THE WASHINGTON POST”: 

Evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Setting the backdrop for this State of the Union address, it seems that things could hardly be more different for the president than they were about this time a year ago.  Is that the general consensus?

MILBANK:  Well, there‘s nothing like a dozen-point drop in your approval rating to really change the tone of things, and that‘s clearly what the president‘s got to deal with tonight.

We‘ve had the Hurricane Katrina, we‘ve had some hiccups in the economy, we‘ve had the Cindy Sheehan, who, I understand, has a ticket to be in the gallery tonight.  So we might have some excitement there.

But (INAUDIBLE) always a lot of entertainment here.  In fact, I think this is the first State of the Union where there is a nonhuman guest in the audience.

OLBERMANN:  Rex the Wonder Dog, yes, the rescue, or the bomb-sniffing dog from Iraq, and the military officer who had adopted him.

But Cindy Sheehan actually going to be there?

MILBANK:  Well, you see, she‘s arranged to be at this Drown Out the State of the Union thing across the street.  But Lynn Woolsey, a congresswoman, gave her a ticket.  So either she has to pretend she doesn‘t have the ticket, or leave the other people to do the shouting so she can go in the chamber.  Of course, she could shout in there, and that would be quite a story.

OLBERMANN:  No discussion of the political climate heading into this speech with or without Ms. Sheehan would be complete without talk of Mr.  Bush and his credibility, and, to some degree, Ms. Sheehan factors into that.  But by now, we‘ve all heard the president‘s rationale for ordering the warrantless wiretaps on—we don‘t know how many Americans on these shores.  But before the existence of the domestic spying program was made public, there was a very different tune from the president.

Let me play you a sound bite from a speech in Buffalo, April 20, 2004.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  Any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires—a wiretap requires a court order.  Nothing has changed, by the way.  When we‘re talking about chasing down terrorists, we‘re talking about getting a court order before we do so.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  You know, that would seem to be problematic for the president at this point.  Is that going to come up at some point in the speech, or in the week ahead, in politics in Washington?

MILBANK:  Well, you‘d think it would, and it might, in a different environment.  Now, let‘s say, technically, what the president said there was true.  He was not talking about these international wiretaps.  He was talking about these roving wiretaps, which are domestic, under the PATRIOT Act.  Now, so, technically, what he said may very well have been true.

But that does not mean that it could not be exploited politically, or that others wouldn‘t exploit it politically.  That remains to be seen how they do that.

OLBERMANN:  Why aren‘t the Democrats, by the way, all wearing T-shirts that have a picture of the president‘s picture -- (INAUDIBLE) -- the president from Buffalo that day, and then it‘s emblazoned with the words, “When we‘re talking about chasing down terrorists, we‘re talking about getting a court order before we do so”?  Why haven‘t they done that?

MILBANK:  You know, it beats me.  The—Dick Durbin mentioned it, almost sort of offhandedly, the other day.  They‘re not really pouncing on it.  Maybe they do have some compunctions about saying, Well, it‘s technically not what he was talking about.  But if the Democrats have learned anything in politics, they should realize that you and I can get up and say, Yes, that‘s incorrect.  But in terms of forming a public impression, that doesn‘t fly at all.

So they could clearly make hay out of a statement like that.

OLBERMANN:  Tonight, and focusing again on the speech and the domestic agenda portion of it, a year ago, the president was talking about his plan to overhaul Social Security and create these accounts.  Tonight, instead, we‘re going to get a man from an oil family telling us that we‘re addicted to oil?

MILBANK:  And the man from Halliburton will stand up and applaud behind him.

OLBERMANN:  Yes.

MILBANK:  Yes, we can certainly, as you mentioned, there‘s certainly the irony factor here.  People can say it‘s not credible.  And, in fact, we passed a large part of the president‘s energy legislation.  The Congress has passed it.  And we‘re still forecast to be consuming more oil than we did before.

Now, on the other hand, the president‘s absolutely correct to say the nation is addicted to oil.  So any serious effort made in that direction, whether it‘s nuclear, whether it‘s alternative fuels, is something that people in both parties now realize actually has to occur.

OLBERMANN:  The nuclear stuff that was reported by “The New York Times” today, is that, in fact, going to be in this speech, and is that going to—are they prepared for the kind of fight that that might create?

MILBANK:  Well, it‘s the energy issue, the nuclear energy issue has some strange bedfellows, because you‘ve got some environmentalists opposed to it, but it splits off some people, because the more nuclear menace there is in your neighborhood, the less menace there is from carbon dioxide and oil.  So you can expect a bit of a tradeoff there.

OLBERMANN:  Odds against the president saying, The state of our union is strong?

MILBANK:  There will be some formulation on that this night.  He‘s pretty good at sticking to that message.  I should note that Democrats aren‘t very good at sticking to that message.  Harry Reid this afternoon invited us to picture him naked.

OLBERMANN:  All right, well, we can‘t leave you without an explanation of that statement, please.

MILBANK:  Well, he was having a press conference with Nancy Pelosi.  They said that the House was getting rid of the perks allowing lobbyists to exercise in the gym.  And Harry Reid says, I‘ve been in the gym for 24 years, and I‘ve never been lobbied.  Of course, I look very ugly naked.

OLBERMANN:  “Washington Post” national political reporter Dana Milbank, along with the others there, apparent victim of a loss of oxygen in the Capitol area.  As always, sir, great thanks.  And go get your seat before somebody scalps it and sells it to John Harwood or Cindy Sheehan.

MILBANK:  Thanks.

OLBERMANN:  For those of you keeping score at home, this State of the Union address is officially the president‘s fifth.  His 2001 speech was called merely “An Address to the Joint Session of Congress,” because, well, because things were a little dicey back then (INAUDIBLE) the garbage can into which Al Gore threw his version of the same speech having not even been picked up yet.

Nonetheless, this is the unofficial start to Mr. Bush‘s sixth year on the job, and that may not be a good omen.  If most American marriages are said to be saddled with so-called seven-year-itch, the American presidency, it could be argued, is saddled with a six-year curse.

Probably started with year six for President Grant, the whiskey ring scandal fermenting, and the hiring of a private citizen to collect back taxes at a 50 percent commission breaking wide open.

With more recent and more interesting evidence of the sixth-year slump, our chief Washington correspondent, Norah O‘Donnell, joins us live from inside the Capitol‘s Statuary Hall.

Norah, good evening.

NORAH O‘DONNELL, MSNBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  And good evening to you, Keith.

The big challenge for the president tonight is to turn around his troubled presidency.  He has just come off the worst year in office.  But as history tells us, he may also be facing another tough year.  It‘s called the sixth-year curse.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

O‘DONNELL (voice-over):  Nearly every president, even the fictional ones, face problems in the second term.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE WEST WING,” NBC)

MARTIN SHEEN, ACTOR:  Look, I want to you swear an oath on a Bible. 

He ought to be packing a Bible.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Oftentimes, second-term presidents can feel invincible, even arrogant.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN:  Presidents have this terrible time in the sixth year.  In a way, it‘s a coincidence.  But part of it also is that any human being, both as president and in an administration, you begin to get tired, and sometimes your guard gets down.

O‘DONNELL:  It was in the sixth year of his presidency that Richard Nixon was forced to resign.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICHARD MILHOUS NIXON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Well, I‘m not a crook.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Ronald Reagan faced Iran-contra.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RONALD WILSON REAGAN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I did not trade arms for hostages.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Bill Clinton was impeached.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  As for other two-term presidents in the 20th century, Dwight Eisenhower suffered huge losses in both houses of Congress in 1958.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt suffered after he tried to pack the court with liberals one year earlier.  And Woodrow Wilson also lost seats in Congress in 1918.

George W. Bush faces his own pitfalls, including the ongoing CIA leak investigation, the swirling scandal involving superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, and a congressional investigation into the controversial NSA spy program.

Slate chief political correspondent John Dickerson.

JOHN DICKERSON, CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, SLATE.COM:  Lot of presidents get in trouble in their second term for things that happen in the first term.  It‘s almost as if the sins at the end there catch up with them.  And so it‘s partially the news cycle and partially the investigative cycle that catches up with the president.

O‘DONNELL:  The upside for second-term presidents, they are free from the ballot box and free to focus on history.  For example, Reagan‘s landmark arms control treaties, Bill Clinton‘s bullish economy and huge budget surplus.

So how will history judge George W. Bush at the end of his second term?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The war in Iraq kind of is the definition now of this presidency.  And for large chunks of the country, when you ask them, Why do you think this country is off on the wrong track? they mention the Iraq war.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O‘DONNELL:  So the president will talk about Iraq here tonight.  And Keith, there‘s not only the six-year curse, but there‘s something called the sixth-year itch, and that effects presidents, of course, in the sixth year, and that means that they usually lose seats in Congress.  That‘s why one Republican pollster said today, the goal for the president here tonight is to create a quote, unquote, “positive environment” for many of the Republicans, who may face tough reelections this year, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Perhaps the sixth-year scratch as much as the sixth-year itch.  Norah O‘Donnell in Washington for us.  Great thanks, Norah.

O‘DONNELL:  My pleasure.

OLBERMANN:  Also tonight, he was meant to be anchoring the coverage of this speech for ABC News tonight.  Instead, Bob Woodruff continued to make news today, he and his injured colleague, Doug Vogt, returning to this country.  The latest on their conditions.

And the passing of an American heroine.  The widow of Martin Luther King is dead.  Details ahead.

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  For several generations of Americans, she was the true, tangible connection to her martyred husband.  Martin Luther King died, assassinated, in 1968.  In a sense, though, he had lived on through his widow, Coretta Scott King.

Tonight she is gone.  Mrs. King died overnight in her sleep in Mexico, having fought ovarian cancer.  She was at a clinic just over the border from San Diego known for its alternative treatment of incurable disease.

Her passing, exactly two weeks after the 20th anniversary of the holiday that was established in her husband‘s memory, the holiday she had fought for years to create.

Here‘s Brian Williams.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS (voice-over):  Coretta Scott King had been in failing health since suffering a stroke and a heart attack last August.

REV. ANDREW YOUNG, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR:  She managed a graceful and beautiful passing.

WILLIAMS:  Still, when the news of her death arrived this morning, it was a blow to the millions of Americans who had come to regard her as an icon of the civil rights movement.

Coretta Scott King had become the embodiment of her late husband‘s message, and made his legacy her own.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.:  I just want to do God‘s will.

CORETTA SCOTT KING:  You can rest assured that I‘m going to keep active in the nonviolent movement to fulfill the dream.

WILLIAMS:  It was not the life she had envisioned, wife and widow of a civil rights crusader.  But it was a struggle she knew well.

REP. JOHN LEWIS (D), GEORGIA:  Long before she met Martin Luther King Jr., long before she married the man, she was working for peace.

WILLIAMS:  She was born Coretta Scott in 1927 in a tiny two-room home in Alabama.  Her childhood, like those of all African-Americans at the time, was defined by race.

REV. JOSEPH LOWERY, SOUTHERN BAPTIST LEADERSHIP COUNCIL:  She came from very strong family, strong women in that family.  And only a strong man that would have chosen a bride like Coretta, who was, in other own right, a full, complete person.

WILLIAMS:  When she met her future husband, Coretta was studying music in Boston.  Charmed by her grace and confidence, Dr. King said he was determined to win her over.

They married two years later.  It would not be an easy life.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHET HUNTLEY, NBC NEWS:  Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

REV. JESSE JACKSON, CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER:  I remember the night that Dr. King was killed, I called her by the bedside phone.  Very difficult call to make.  And I didn‘t know quite how to put it, except to say, Mrs.  King, he has been shot.  Intuitively, she knew really what had happened.

WILLIAMS:  Though her husband‘s death shattered her life and a nation, there was no time to mourn.  Just four days after his death, Coretta Scott King led 50,000 people on a march in Memphis.

But even with the significant contribution she made to her nation, she was proudest of the legacy she and her husband achieved together—their children.

CORETTA SCOTT KING:  I‘m going to keep on marching for justice, equality, peace, and reconciliation of the human family, until I am called home.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Brian Williams reporting.  Coretta Scott King was 78.

And in a story in which those who cover the news became the news, a doctor who treated “World News Tonight” co-anchor Bob Woodruff in Germany said he has, quote, “a very good chance of someday going back to work as a television journalist.”

ABC, in heartrending repetition of last year‘s sadnesses, says it will make interim personnel decisions in the coming days.

Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt carried onto a C-17 medical evacuation plane early this morning at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, strapped to stretchers, attached to life-support machines, and then landing at Andrews Air Force Base late this afternoon.  Twenty-eight other U.S.  military personnel, also injured in Iraq, were on board the same flight.

The wounded journalists are expected to continue their treatment and recovery at the Brain Injury Center of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, ABC now saying Woodruff, who sustained severe injuries during a roadside attack two days ago just north of Baghdad, briefly opened his eyes yesterday and is responding to stimuli to his hands and feet, both men, according to medical personnel, remaining in serious but stable condition.

Meantime, all you may truly need to know about the last day on the job for an American icon is that his impact on the economy was the subject of a lengthy feature on a national newscast in England—not his impact on the economy in America, but his impact on the economy in England.

On his last day as U.S. Federal Reserve chair, Alan Greenspan hiking the interest rate for the 14th time, and not just for old time‘s sake.  His final committee meeting saw the interest rate jumped a quarter of a point to 4.5 percent.

Ben Bernanke, formerly chairman of the President‘s Council of Economic Advisers, will tomorrow become the first Fed chairman other than Alan Greenspan since August 11, 1987.

And also tonight, a grainy videotape from Southern California that you can anticipate seeing again and again in the days and weeks to come.  An unarmed man, a passenger from a high-speed car chase, detained by San Bernardino county sheriffs, evidently following the deputy‘s instructions, and then being shot anyway by that deputy.

The twist, the man who was shot is an Air Force police officer just back from six months in Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I said (INAUDIBLE).  (INAUDIBLE), OK?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  OK.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  (INAUDIBLE) get up, OK?  Get up.  (INAUDIBLE) get up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Let‘s go.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Stop fire.  Stop fire!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  (INAUDIBLE), OK?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  OK.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  (INAUDIBLE), OK?  Get up.  (INAUDIBLE) get up.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  As you heard, Air Force Senior Airman Elio Carrion, told by an unnamed deputy to get up, says, quote, “I‘m going to get up,” whereupon he was shot three times in the chest, ribs, and legs.  There were no charges against him.  He was the passenger in a car chase Sunday night.

Remarkably, Carrion is listed in good condition at a local hospital.  The deputy, not named, placed on paid administrative leave by the San Bernardino County Sheriff‘s Department.  Much more on this tomorrow night here on COUNTDOWN.

As surely there will be the inevitable follow-ups to tonight‘s State of the Union address, the grades the president earned last year, and an early look at the answers in his book this year.

Also, straight Fs, another lashing-out at NBC.  Swing and a miss. 

Special edition of Worst Person in the World, next here on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  And now, a little out of traditional sequence, COUNTDOWN‘s nominee for today‘s Worst Person in the World.

And Bill O‘Reilly is at it again.  The second time in four shows, whining about cheap shots from MSNBC and NBC.  This time, he opened his program with it, ostensibly starting with a patronizing update on the health of ABC‘s Doug Vogt and Bob Woodruff, whom he identified as Woodriss.

There was a lot of guff about the code among most in TV news of respect and professional courtesy, but most of what Mr. O‘Reilly was saying was his typical obtuse shorthand of bullying and another word starting with bull.

As a public service, I‘m going to read portions of his remarks, and then translate them into what he‘s actually saying.  The bottom line is, as the oldest cliche goes, he can dish it out, but clearly he cannot take it.

(reading):  “Fox News has good relationships with ABC News, CBS News, and, generally, CNN.”

That‘s probably why Fox bought those billboards across the street from CNN headquarters taunting them about ratings, or issued that anonymous statement comparing CNN to the “Titanic,” or the one about Ted Turner losing his mind.

(reading):  “But Talking Points is troubled by the behavior of NBC, which cheap-shots Fox News on a regular basis and has been doing so for some time.”

You know, I got to confess, it never occurred to me before, but when we quote your own words back to you about how the Catholic Church was out to get Christmas, or how we should let al Qaeda attack San Francisco, they must seem like cheap shots.

(reading):  “It is only a few people doing this, but NBC president Robert Wright allows it to happen.  Wright knows exactly what‘s going on, because he‘s been made aware of it.”

Maybe he hasn‘t, Bill.  Mr. Wright is the chairman, not the president, of NBC, so your postcard of complaint may have gone to the wrong office.  And, by the way, let us leave our bosses out of this, Bill, or I‘ll have to call yours.  And you know how much Satan hates to be disturbed while “American Idol” is on.

By the way, I ain‘t calling Rupert Murdoch the devil, by the way.

(reading):  “Now, we understand that NBC has major problems.  Its prime-time programming is dead last, its cable operations are ratings failures.”

In the cable ratings for the year 2005, USA Network, owned by NBC, finished three whole places ahead of Fox News.  And as to MSNBC, since February of 2005, our respective ratings tell a very interesting story, in what was described today by News Corp as, quote, “the money demo.”  COUNTDOWN‘s ratings are up 34 percent, but O‘Reilly‘s have shriveled by 21 percent.

Bill‘s obviously among our new viewers.

(reading):  “But that is no excuse for unprofessional behavior.”

Unless, that is, the unprofessional behavior is with one of your women producers on the phone.

(reading):  “There‘s no question that the amazing success of Fox News has affected all TV news operations.”

Like bird flu.

(reading):  “But CNN, for example, usually competes with class, not bitterness.”

Which is why we at Fox News compared CNN‘s Paula Zahn to an outhouse and a dead muskrat.

(reading):  “Likewise, we respect ABC and CBS for their work ethic and competitive zeal.”

Especially since David Letterman kicked the crap of me on CBS earlier this month.

(reading):  “But there‘s something very wrong with NBC.  And if it continues, Talking Points will go into greater detail about the problems besetting that network.” 

Is this that code among most in TV news of respect and professional courtesy you mentioned, Bill, or do we get to that part later? 

“We hope Robert Wright will right the situation—and believe he has the power to do it—but perhaps we‘re wrong about Wright.” 

Bill made a funny!  Hee.

“Maybe he‘s out of the loop or maybe he just doesn‘t care.  Well, he should care.  We‘ll let you know what happens.”  This is Ted Baxter, WJM, good night and good news. 

Speaking of good news, will the president receive any accolades for memorable parts of this year‘s State of the Union address or could the memories wind up being more like 2003 and the 16 words linking Iraq to uranium from Niger?  What about last year‘s promises?  Did any of them come to fruition?  All that and more still ahead on our COUNTDOWN to the State of the Union.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  He warned that by the year 2013 payroll taxes would no longer be sufficient to cover monthly payments and that, 19 years after that, the Social Security Trust Fund would be exhausted.  President Bush, in last year‘s State of the Union?  Nah, keep guessing.  In the same speech, he endorsed the McCain-Feingold bill and introduced in the gallery a man he called a hero in two countries, Sammy Sosa. 

The highlights of President Clinton‘s 1999 State of the Union underscoring just how risky making this speech can be.  People record it, and transcribe it, and grade you on it.  Before we look ahead with Craig Crawford, we‘ll look back with our White House correspondent David Gregory. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID GREGORY, NBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Aides say the president will highlight several issues he wants to tackle this year, including health care and energy costs, the nation‘s economic competitiveness in the world, as well as national security, with the country still anxious about events in Iraq. 

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN:  People at the beginning of the year do listen to their president giving the State of the Union, one of the rare opportunities he has to get the nation‘s undivided attention. 

GREGORY:  Mr. Bush, with his cabinet Monday, sounded like he wanted a fresh start with Democrats. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  And I‘ll do my best to elevate the tone here in Washington, D.C., so we can work together to achieve big things for the American people. 

GREGORY:  But the president has not yet regained his political footing.  The report card from last year‘s State of the Union is bleak. 

His signature push, revamping Social Security, failed; immigration reform, blocked by his own party opposed to a guest worker program for illegal immigrants; a promise for tax reform put off; energy legislation passed, but failed to include the president‘s goal of new domestic drilling and failed to address rising gas prices; the president‘s proposal to ban gay marriage defeated; and Mr. Bush‘s vow to cut the red ink in Washington destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, with the deficit at $400 billion this year. 

Critics argue the record explains the president‘s sagging poll ratings. 

FMR. SEN. TOM DASCHLE (D), SOUTH DAKOTA:  I think the American people are beginning to appreciate that many of the things that this president has advocated have put us in the wrong direction, both in terms of foreign policy, the economy, and things that affect them directly. 

GREGORY:  White House aides acknowledge the war overshadows the rest of the president‘s agenda.  Republican pollster Bill McInturff. 

BILL MCINTURFF, REPUBLICAN POLLSTER:  When you ask people in this country, “Why do you think the country is off on the wrong track?  What are the reasons you disapprove of Bush?”  Overwhelming the number-one reason is Iraq. 

GREGORY:  David Gregory, NBC News, the White House. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Iraq will hardly be the only thing the president will talk about.  This will not be a repeat of 2003 when Mr. Bush used the words Iraq or Iraqi 22 times and the name Saddam Hussein 19 times. 

Any chance that you might have thought he might not be going to this speech are now to be laid to rest.  Moments ago, this was the president leaving the White House en route to the Capitol for the State of the Union address, making his way out of the White House and headed into the limousine.  So it‘s inevitable now.

And we‘re also now confirming that Cindy Sheehan will be in attendance as this speech is given, a guest of Representative Lynn Woolsey. 

Let‘s call in “Congressional Quarterly” columnist Craig Crawford. 

Good evening, Craig. 

CRAIG CRAWFORD, COLUMNIST, “CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY”:  Hi there.  I‘ll tell you, Keith, that O‘Reilly segment has Oscar written all over it. 

OLBERMANN:  Well, thank you kindly.  We‘ll see if he has any friends named Oscar who like to beat people up. 

(LAUGHTER)

CRAWFORD:  There you go. 

OLBERMANN:  All right, back to this here tonight.  In past speeches, all the president has wanted to do—even the one 45 days ago in the middle of December—all he‘s wanted to do was talk about Iraq.  I‘m gathering that is not exactly the case right now in going into tonight‘s speech?

CRAWFORD:  Well, what he‘ll do is talk about the war on terror.  What they want to do is make the Iraq just sort of in the background of the overall war on terror, because when he talks about the war on terror, he‘s in better shape than when we focus specifically on Iraq.  But, of course, events in Iraq kind of keep us focused on Iraq. 

OLBERMANN:  The score card David Gregory just went through, besides underlining just how bad last year was for the president, does it also suggest why his proposals look comparatively bland this year?  Is he setting his sights a little closer to the edge of the table? 

CRAWFORD:  Well, on the edge of his presidency.  He‘s got a little over a thousand days left, and some of the things he might want to talk about, the really big reform on health care, would take 10,000 days to get done.  So these things always are a laundry list. 

State of the Union addresses are not like inaugural addresses, which are more for history.  They age like wine.  State of the Unions are more like crack hits and for the next day‘s news cycle, and he‘ll follow it, I‘m sure, with a lot of events afterwards. 

OLBERMANN:  If part of this is, as his public appearances invariably are, attempts to pivot out of what certainly was the worst year of the presidency, is there something to this speech, something about this speech that will be there with explicit intent to get him out of that cycle? 

CRAWFORD:  Well, I think there will be some efforts at distraction, at getting focused on some other things.  Talking about health care will be one.  I understand there‘s going to be some language in there about oil dependency, saying the nation‘s addicted to oil, maybe suggesting it‘s our fault.  I don‘t know. 

But I‘m actually glad to hear the president starting to talk about that.  I think that‘s one of the underlying parts of the war in Iraq that has not gotten much discussion, is how our dependency on oil in the Middle East has led to our dependency on events in that region. 

OLBERMANN:  In the timing of that particular reference to the addiction to oil coming a couple of days after these world-record profits were announced by the big oil companies, is there going to be any kind of bad taste in the mouth and the juxtaposition of those two things?

CRAWFORD:  Oh, sure.  I‘m sure the critics and the Democrats, when they come out, will be quick to point that out.  And there will be an opportunity for that. 

But there‘s nothing like a State of the Union for the president to get all of the attention.  He‘s on primetime.  I‘ve seen very few presidents lose State of the Union addresses, at least not in the beginning.  Later on, maybe, when some things are found out about things they said that weren‘t true, it‘s different. 

OLBERMANN:  Well, we‘ll see if Cindy Sheehan speaks up, and that might change things altogether. 

CRAWFORD:  She just might. 

OLBERMANN:  But now, on that exact point, last Friday, the president gave an interview to Bob Schieffer at CBS.  He mentioned that he wanted to bring up the subject of elevating the tone of political discourse.  We just heard the same thing said in front of the cabinet Monday in David Gregory‘s report.  Is there at this point a moral high ground to claim in politics? 

CRAWFORD:  Not really.  I think both sides are in an election year now, and any talk about elevating the discourse is just not going to happen, particularly when you hear some of the president‘s people, like Karl Rove recently advising Republicans on how they‘re going to run against Democrats. 

This is a very partisan president.  It‘s one reason he succeeds, Keith, with these low approval ratings.  He keeps that Republican base strong behind him, and that is how he does it, with a lot of partisan rhetoric. 

OLBERMANN:  There is hype, primetime coverage, pre- and post-, as we‘re doing right now, repeating the videotape of everybody arriving at the Capitol, everybody leaving the White House, the parade of senators, the parade of congressman. 

How much though does this speech matter?  As I suggested before, this is from a time when the president was not necessarily seen in public that much or even on television that much.  And now he, basically, appears more often than “The Simpsons” do. 

Is this entire format an anachronism?  Is this in its dying years? 

CRAWFORD:  Very much so.  You know, many of the people I‘ve talked to in White Houses, both Democrat and Republican, always kind of dread these addresses.  There‘s not much they can do with them except get through it. 

And I think a part of the problem is with the State of the Union is it‘s more of a ritual for Washington than it is for the rest of the country.  I think most people are talking about the Oscar nominations today, to tell you the truth. 

And for us, though, this starts our prom season.  We have our big tuxedo dinners coming up, and so this is a very exciting time for Washingtonians. 

OLBERMANN:  Well, if it‘s prom season, I think just we saw Trent Lott and Hillary Clinton as his date.  And that‘s going to be a story for tomorrow.

CRAWFORD:  Oh, that could...

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN:  There‘s your next blog, Craig.  Craig Crawford, the...

CRAWFORD:  I can see that couple, yes. 

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN:  ... columnist for the “Congressional Quarterly” and, of course, NBC analyst.  Great thanks, as always, Craig.

CRAWFORD:  Good to be with you. 

OLBERMANN:  Our COUNTDOWN to the State of the Union continues.  Chris Matthews will join me next.  You are watching live coverage here, just of course as everybody steps out of the picture here on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  T-minus 15 minutes and change until the sergeant at arms of the House of Representatives announces the arrival of President Bush for his sixth annual address to a joint session of Congress, almost time to shove that popcorn into the microwave. 

Counting down these final few minutes until the State of the Union with us, HARDBALL host Chris Matthews, who will be anchoring our coverage of the address from Washington.  Hi, Chris. 

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST:  Hi, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Institutional questions first.  As I noted earlier, since the last of these—he‘s given six major speeches that were televised nationally, seven nationally televised news conferences.  What is the meaning of the State of the Union address now?  Is it just a ritual at this point? 

MATTHEWS:  Well, you know, I think, when I look—every one is different.  When I look at the president‘s text tonight, he‘s doing basically to his critics what you just did to Bill O‘Reilly.  He‘s shoving it back at them.  And that‘s what he‘s going to do tonight. 

He‘s saying:  If you don‘t like my adventuresome foreign policy, if you don‘t like me going off into Iraq and killing Arabs by the tens of thousands, and losing several thousand of our guys, and having several more thousand of our guys amputated, having suffered amputations, well, tough, because I‘m going to keep on doing it.  I‘m going to go out there and bring down tyrannies around the world. 

No more guff about WMD or all the other reasons for going.  I‘m going for the ultimate neoconservative cause, which is to bring down dictatorships, hold elections, and see what happens.  He‘s saying I‘m going to keep on doing what I‘ve been doing.  It‘s a pretty powerful speech. 

OLBERMANN:  Is that a self-fulfilling prophecy?  Is that the win-win?  Do you not have to wait for results for that to be effective for a president who gives a speech like that?

MATTHEWS:  Well, you know, he‘s only 39 percent in approval, not because he gives bad speeches, but because people don‘t like his policies.  Most people, a plurality, would like to see us not have gone to Iraq.  Two-thirds of the people would like to see us leave Iraq.  It‘s not like he‘s selling his product, but he keeps selling it. 

OLBERMANN:  We both, I‘m sure, have flashback every time there is a State of the Union to the famous, or infamous, one of 1998, when the President Clinton spoke right after the breaking of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. 

MATTHEWS:  I‘ve just been cut off here. 

OLBERMANN:  Are you with us still? 

MATTHEWS:  I‘m now.  I here now. 

OLBERMANN:  I‘m flashing back to ‘98, flashing probably the wrong word to use in terms of Mr. Clinton‘s speech right after the Lewinsky scandal broke.  And there‘s Mrs. Clinton, as we speak, Senator Clinton of New York. 

He ignored the issue entirely, and his approval rating shot up 10 points after that State of the Union address.  Can the president ignore the touchier aspects of Iraq, or the NSA spying domestic scandal, or anything else that is touching on his administration now?  And is that the right course for him in this speech?

MATTHEWS:  Well, he can do that, and he might get a point or two in the poll tomorrow.  But the reality moves on. 

And as somebody said earlier tonight on HARDBALL—I think it was Joe Scarborough—that what‘s probably going to matter more today coming out of today is the fact that he won a 58 vote majority confirmation for Judge Sam Alito for the Supreme Court.  And Sam, given good health, will be there for 25 years.  He‘s got John Roberts there now for perhaps 25 years.  These are middle-aged guys with a lot of life expectancy and a lot of brain power left. 

Perhaps it‘s like Lincoln at Gettysburg.  It‘s what‘s done there, not what‘s said there.  I think I‘d go along with him.  I think that there‘s nothing like a Supreme Court appointment to manifest itself years and years later. 

OLBERMANN:  Craig Crawford just analogized this to prom night or the start of the prom season, in any event, for Washington.  And I was thinking, as we heard that Cindy Sheehan is going to be in the audience as a guest of Representative Woolsey, and there‘s also going to be Rex the dog, a veteran of Iraq, that this is certainly going to be a very odd prom. 

We don‘t really think anything untoward is going to happen simply because Ms. Sheehan is there, do we?

MATTHEWS:  No, except that this sort of burlesque of the antiwar people in this country—perhaps, who knows how it happens?  But somehow there‘s a cartoon version of people who oppose the war and think that it was fought under bad arguments, and bad intel, and bad philosophy, bad policy.

And they get capsulized in Michael Moore, and Cindy Sheehan, you know, and Ramsey Clark, even Jack Murtha.  It gets too much personality attached to it when, in fact, the average person who opposed the war is an average person. 

There‘s nothing spectacular about their personality or life experience, like Cindy Sheehan losing a son in Afghanistan, or that it‘s like Michael Moore makes interesting and, in fact, very spectacular docudramas or documentaries that make a lot of noise out there, or that Jack Murtha was a combat veteran in Vietnam. 

Average people have a real problem with this war in Iraq.  And that doesn‘t come across when their represented by these more colorful figures.  And that‘s just a fact.

It‘s too bad we don‘t have debate between two regular people about the war in Iraq.  The president comes across as a man who is a better leader than his critics, and that‘s in all the polling that NBC found today. 

People on the issues would rather follow the Congress, two to one—the Congress, after all this tainting, and Jack Abramoff stuff, and all this crap and sleaze up there—they still trust the Congress two to one more than they do President Bush.  And yet, when it comes to leadership, they like the president better than the critics. 

So I think there‘s a real personality problem here.  Maybe we need some sort of national reality television show to find out who will speak for the left in this country and...

(CROSSTALK) 

OLBERMANN:  You speak of theatrics.  As we begin to wrap up the pre-game show here, there is a report that Capitol Hill police have arrested Cindy Sheehan in advance of the State of the Union. 

Chris Matthews will pick up our coverage of the president‘s speech after the break.  Get ready and get set, Chris. 

That‘s our COUNTDOWN to the State of the Union.  Stay tuned for the address itself here on MSNBC.  Stay tuned for perhaps some fireworks or perhaps they‘re already done for the night.  I‘m Keith Olbermann.  Good night, and good luck.  

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2006 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2006 Voxant, Inc. ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and Voxant, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

Watch Countdown with Keith Olbermann each weeknight at 8 p.m. ET

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,