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Clock running on Bush presidency

President Bush's final-year agenda is a stripped down list of what he can realistically hope to get done, since the clout he once touted is fading away.
Image: U.S. President George W. Bush speaks at the Major Economies Meeting on Energy Security and Climate Change at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C.
President George W. Bush speaks at the 'Major Economies Meeting on Energy Security and Climate Change' at the U.S. State Department in Washington.Matthew Cavanaugh / EPA
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Bush's final-year agenda is a stripped down list of what he can realistically hope to get done, since the clout he once touted is fading away.

Bush will venture to four other continents, get more involved than ever in trying to forge Middle East peace, and continue to command two wars that assure his relevancy to the end. As Iraq improves, he must now deal with renewed violence in Afghanistan and upheaval in Pakistan.

At home, Bush will try to extend two domestic achievements that are dear to his legacy — the No Child Left Behind education law, and tax cuts that otherwise expire in 2010.

Long gone are the big ideas of Social Security and immigration reform, which collapsed on Capitol Hill. His final State of the Union speech in late January is expected to reflect today's policy reality, eschewing new initiatives in favor of unfinished proposals.

As at any time, Bush has forces pushing against him. But the ones in 2008 are stronger.

A hostile Congress awaits the president as he returns from fishing, cutting brush and clearing trails at his secluded Texas ranch. Bush and the Democratic Congress clashed all year on the war, spending, health care and tactics for interrogating terror suspects.

"It's going to be a year of angst and struggle — more of '07," said James Thurber, an American University political scientist who researches relations between the two branches.

In political terms, Bush's last year in office is really less than 12 months.

The attention of the nation and much of the world has shifted to those who want his seat in the Oval Office. The Republican nominee for president could be settled by the multistate primaries on Feb. 5, meaning someone else will be unofficial head of the party.

Image: George W. Bush
President Bush gestures during his news conference, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2007, in the Brady Press Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)Ron Edmonds / AP

The opportunity for legislation in the election-year will be short, too, as little is expected to get done after Congress adjourns for a summer break. Democrats are gunning for the White House and the bigger majorities they need to govern Congress as they want.

Bush's year begins with a nine-day trip to the Middle East, a hands-on peacemaking venture that could shape his legacy —a word that Bush and his senior aides don't use.

Starting Jan. 8, the president is scheduled to travel to Israel, the West Bank, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The trip is exactly the kind of process-driving diplomacy that Bush has avoided in the past, said Jon Alterman, a Mideast expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. It reflects how his presidency has gone, Alterman said, as Bush once talked of bold transformation but now tries to shepherd more incremental progress on site.

The latter approach is favored in the Middle East, but Bush's waning power will follow him, Alterman said. Some leaders don't want to give concessions to a short-term president.

"Friends and foes in the Middle East at a senior level have almost no curiosity about what the last year of this presidency holds," Alterman said.

The Mideast trip sets the tone for a busy year of foreign travel.

In February, Bush is expected to visit Africa to promote the global fight against AIDS, and highlight the United States' role in that effort.

He will also go to Romania in April for a NATO summit; to Japan's Lake Toya in July to meet with leaders of industrialized countries; to China in August for the Summer Olympics; and to Peru in November for the annual summit of leaders of Pacific Rim nations.

It is common for presidents to head abroad in their final year as the domestic consumption of their message diminishes. But Bush's aides say most of his trips would have happened in any year, and the narrative that Bush is escaping overseas is overstated.

Bush's State of the Union will be one of his final times in command of a prime-time audience. He is expected to use it to rally support for unfinished items, such as expanding the domestic energy supply and health care options, as opposed to last-minute policy ideas.

"We understood after immigration reform failed that this is not a Congress that's likely to pass big things," said Ed Gillespie, the president's counselor. "Once they adjourn for the Fourth of July, it's hard to imagine they'll do much beyond appropriations bills. That's a realistic assessment, and the State of the Union will likely reflect that."

Bush invoked his veto power like never before in 2007, with effectiveness. But it may have erased what little chance was left of broad, meaningful compromise with lawmakers.

Lots of key items remain to be done, including terrorist surveillance legislation.

The president is also likely to stick to economic themes in 2008. He is aware that the public is frustrated and restless, which could sink Republicans in the next election. Bush's message is, the underlying economy is sound but the government must help people deal with mortgage crises, energy bills and education concerns.

Still looming, as always, is the fate of the war in Iraq.

Another key milestone comes in March with an update to Congress by Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador there.

Bush remains the decider on when, and whether, U.S. troops will return home.

"It may be the tone for the entire year is set by events he cannot control," Thurber said. "The biggest unknown, of course, is what's going to happen politically in Iraq, and he can't control that, even though they have pushed and cajoled. It is a tricky situation."