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Bush readies State of the Union address

President Bush's State of the Union address on Tuesday gives him a second chance to defend his new Iraq strategy to a nation soured on the war and a Congress poised to vote against the plan.
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Bush's State of the Union address on Tuesday gives him a second chance to defend his new Iraq strategy to a nation soured on the war and a Congress poised to vote against the plan.

It will be the president's last major opportunity to shape America's legislative agenda before the fast-moving 2008 presidential campaign begins to drown out his message.

Bush is expected to strike a conciliatory tone on some domestic issues where he believes he can work with the first Democratic Congress in 12 years. On Iraq, he is expected to stand firm.

The nationally televised speech typically offers great political theater. This year, however, it comes just 13 days after the president's prime-time announcement of his decision to send 21,500 more U.S. troops to Iraq.

Nonbinding resolution support building
Since then, Capitol Hill — the forum for the State of the Union address — has grown more hostile.

Democratic support is building around a nonbinding resolution opposing Bush's plan for more troops. Some Republicans already critical of the White House's Iraq policy have embraced the idea and others are looking for ways to sign on.

Despite the political tensions, House Democrats invited Bush to speak at their annual retreat in Williamsburg, Va., on Feb. 3 and the president accepted.

"The elephant in the room is Iraq," said Ken Khachigian, a former speechwriter for Presidents Reagan and Nixon who thinks Bush should use forceful, blunt - even combative - rhetoric to rebut Democrats and others who criticize his war strategy.

"If I were counseling him, I'd say `Look, you've got to face them down. You've come up with a plan. They're not giving it a chance to work," Khachigian said.

"I'd say, `If you really believe that this is the seminal battle of the early part of the 21st century, then you've got to make it clear that your position is right and theirs is wrong,'" he said.

A different kind of speech
White House officials said the State of the Union will not be a repeat of the Iraq speech on Jan. 10. They said Bush will speak broadly about the pressing challenges facing the United States at home and abroad.

"President Bush will discuss his determination to defeat the terrorists who are part of a broader extremist movement that is now doing everything it can to defeat us in Iraq," White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said.

"If the extremists prevail in Iraq, the American people will be less safe and our enemies will be emboldened and more lethal," Perino said.

Bush probably will try to link the war to the threat to America since the Sept. 11 attacks, said Bruce Riedel, a former official at the National Security Council and analyst at the liberal Brookings Institution.

"Who can be against terrorism?" Riedel asked. "Fear is a commodity that the administration has sold before, and right now they're not having much success with the public or the Congress with the arguments they've trotted out on the (troop) surge."

The costs of the war and the deficit are expected to preclude Bush from announcing expensive new programs.

Immigration, health care and education
On the domestic side, the president plans to highlight immigration, health care and urge Congress to renew the No Child Left Behind education law. He is expected to call on Congress to preserve tax cuts, balance the budget within five years and work to make the costs of the war more transparent in the federal budget.

Bush will propose a tax break to people who buy their own health insurance and a cap on how much coverage individuals can receive tax free at work, officials say.

The proposal would give those who buy their own health care coverage the same tax benefits now enjoyed by those with employer-sponsored plans. Bush also will announce steps next week to take some federal money now going to hospitals and institutions and give it to states for programs to get medical coverage for the more than 46 million people without insurance.

As in his previous State of the Union addresses, Bush probably will lament the U.S. reliance on foreign sources of energy and express support for alternative fuels. Auto industry officials expect the president to ask Congress once more for the power to change fuel economy standards for passenger cars.

The White House said Bush also will lay out his policy on global warming, but will not propose a mandate to cut greenhouse gases.

The president, who has begun rehearsing drafts of the speech, worked on his address over the weekend at the Camp David presidential retreat.

He was joined by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser Stephen Hadley and chief of staff Joshua Bolten.

After the speech on Tuesday evening, Bush is scheduled to travel on Wednesday to Wilmington, Del., where he will talk about energy policy. On Thursday, he will discuss his health care ideas in Lee's Summit, Mo.