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For Bush, State of the Union ups and downs

In a bow to political reality, the president will skip major new proposals in favor of ones the country has heard before.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Bound together, George W. Bush's State of the Union addresses are a history of the ups and downs of his presidency, of the times he got his way and the times his hopeful oratory was just that.

Last year, Bush implored a skeptical Congress to embrace his plan to send thousands more U.S. troops to Iraq. Despite growing gloom in the country about the war, Democrats failed to stop him or to set deadlines for troop withdrawals. The military buildup went ahead without impediment and is credited with lowering violence in Iraq, at least for now, even as progress in political reconciliation has proved disappointing.

Some of the ideas Bush has pushed in the annual speech have fallen flat and even backfired.

In 2005, he advocated an overhaul of Social Security, saying the program was "headed toward bankruptcy." It went nowhere in Congress. For three years running, from 2004 to 2006, he appealed to lawmakers to approve a guest worker program as part of a major changes in immigration laws. Members of his own party sabotaged the plan.

The State of the Union, first delivered by George Washington in 1790, gives the president a chance outline his agenda on national television. Yet initiatives aired in optimism quickly can fall victim to divisive politics, budget fights or events far from Washington.

Building his case for invading Iraq, Bush stated in his 2003 address that the British government had learned that Saddam Hussein had sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. That assertion turned out to be wrong and the blunder punched a hole into Bush's justification for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that March.

It also led to the scandal over the leak of Valerie Plame's CIA identity. A newspaper column by her husband, a former ambassador, disputed Bush's statement about the uranium, precipitated Plame's unmasking and spawned an investigation that eventually ensnared Vice President Dick Cheney's then-chief of staff.

Iraq has figured prominently in Bush's State of the Union addresses, defending the war while the U.S. death toll rises — from 500 when spoke in 2004 to 3,900-plus today.

Economy overtakes war as top concern
In this year's speech, set for Monday night, Bush's words on the sagging economy might command more attention from a war-weary public. When it comes to his economic message, Bush has come full circle.

As Bush prepared for the short ride down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol in 2002, the Senate was debating an economic aid plan. "We will defeat this recession," he said in that year's address.

Technically, the recession was over by that time. The National Bureau of Economic Research, the recognized arbiters for dating recessions, says the last one started in March 2001 and ended that November.

This year, amid fears of a new recession, Bush is delivering his speech days after the White House and congressional leaders agreed on a multibillion-dollar proposal to revive an economy strained by a housing slump, a credit crisis and high energy prices.

A centerpiece of his speech last year — a plan to cut gasoline use by 20 percent by 2017 and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil — struck a chord.

Last month, Bush signed energy legislation to bring more fuel-efficient vehicles into auto showrooms and require wider use of corn-based ethanol. The measure requires automakers to raise fuel efficiency by 40 percent to an industry average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020. Even though Congress altered Bush's proposal, he cheered its passage and said it was a response to his initiative.

Bush has had success on an AIDS initiative, too. In his 2003 speech, Bush outlined a $15 billion plan for emergency relief in Africa. A "work of mercy," he called it, that would save millions of lives. Last May, he announced plans to double that commitment to $30 billion over the next five years and is headed on a trip to Africa next month.

Sometimes, the State of the Union is as much about what a president does not say.

In 2006, two paragraphs of Bush's address highlighted rebuilding work on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, which struck in the summer of 2005. Last year, he was criticized for not saying a word about the region that is still reeling from the storm.