What to Expect from Bush's Speech ; in His State of the Union Wednesday Night, He Is Likely to Build on Iraqi Elections to Boost Domestic Initiatives, Such as Social Security

By Linda Feldmann writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 2, 2005 | Go to article overview

What to Expect from Bush's Speech ; in His State of the Union Wednesday Night, He Is Likely to Build on Iraqi Elections to Boost Domestic Initiatives, Such as Social Security


Linda Feldmann writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


After an Iraqi election that came off better than most people expected, President Bush will deliver his State of the Union message Wednesday night with the wind at his back and a sense of fresh possibility as he seeks to press ahead with an ambitious domestic agenda.

The White House knows it must avoid another "mission accomplished" moment, in which it appears to declare victory prematurely, analysts say. And Mr. Bush can also be sure Wednesday night to stress, as he has already done, the tough road ahead in building Iraqi democracy and quelling the insurgency.

But in an administration that believes in the concept of political capital - that success in one area opens opportunities in others - the Iraqi election has been a godsend. Public approval of the Iraq war has been melting away and the president has faced pushback from a wary public and a powerful senior lobby over his proposal to partially privatize Social Security. For now, though, the president has earned some breathing room.

"He's the master of linkage politics and leveraging one issue into another," says Darrell West, a political scientist at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "In the first term, he was able to take the halo effect from 9/11 and turn it to his advantage on domestic issues," such as tax cuts.

Bush also can answer his critics on charges of stubbornness by stressing that he did not publicly waver on the date of the elections once it had been set. What Bush likely won't point out is that, in fact, at several key moments in his presidency, he has been willing to change course - such as over the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security and the 9/11 Commission, both of which he initially opposed. With Iraq, the White House hesitated to endorse an early vote, but went along at the insistence of the Iraqi Shiite leader, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

Regardless of how Bush actually maneuvers on issues, he has honed a public image of steadfastness - a point he has used to his advantage throughout his political career and which some see as a key element of his leadership. "That was really what he talked about throughout the campaign: 'Stay the course and we will be successful,' " says Professor West.

Wednesday night, Bush will pivot quickly to Social Security, which the White House calls the centerpiece of the speech. He knows he faces a wary public - and some balky Republicans in Congress, who have been hearing from constituents concerned about the idea of possibly lower guaranteed benefits in exchange for personal investment accounts. At a retreat in West Virginia last Friday with congressional Republicans, Bush offered assurances that he would make aggressive use of the bully pulpit and other public means to push through change, more than he did with the Medicare prescription drug plan. …

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