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Message: I Lead

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, January 31, 2006; 11:21 AM

President Bush goes before a disaffected nation tonight to reassert his leadership -- quite possibly by insisting repeatedly that he's a leader with an obligation to lead at a time that requires leadership.

"Lead" certainly was the word of the day at the White House yesterday.

After his Cabinet meeting, Bush told reporters: "I can't tell you how upbeat I am about our future, so long as we're willing to lead. . . .

"We talked about how to make sure this economy of ours stays the strongest economy in the world, and that we recognize we can't just sit back and hope for the best, that we've got to lead."

And at the mid-day press briefing, spokesman Scott McClellan was typically unsubtle.

"We are living in historic times and, as the President has said, we have a responsibility to lead. . . . It's important that we continue leading and acting to spread peace abroad and prosperity at home. The President is optimistic and confident about the path that we are on."

Didn't catch that?

"These are historic times that we are living in, these are challenging times. That's why we have an obligation to lead. . . .

"This is a President that believes we must lead and act."

Still a little unclear on the concept?

"Because of the times that we are living in, we must continue to lead and we must continue to act on the priorities that the American people care about."

Lead how?

Well, that will be left a little hazy. But, for instance, said McClellan:

"Tax cuts are part of the solution . . . and that's why the President has continued to lead and advocate spending restraint within the budget."

Also: "The President made it clear after September 11th that this was going to be a long war, but he's going to continue acting and leading and doing everything in his power to win that war so long as he is in office."

Elevating the Tone

Here's another theme you can expect tonight, again telegraphed by Bush after his Cabinet meeting yesterday:

"One of the things I will do is call for Congress and the executive branch to have a good, honest dialogue, but to speak candidly with each other, but to do so in a way that brings credit to the process. 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."

But just how exactly will he do that?

That very question came up at the press briefing. And it turns out that when Bush talks about trying to elevate the tone, he doesn't mean his own.

"Q Let me ask you a question about elevating the tone, because, obviously, a lot of Americans are familiar with this talk from the President, even though it didn't really come to pass after he was elected in 2000. . . . So could you be a little bit more specific about what he thinks he can do to elevate the tone?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Just exactly what he's been doing throughout his administration. This President has always worked, whether it was when he was governor of Texas or since he's been President of the United States, has always worked to reach out and elevate the discourse. If you look at his tone, this President has focused on how we can work together to get things done, and focused on what the American people expect us to do. And that's what -- and that's what he will continue to do. . . .

"Q You said the President is going to continue doing what he's doing in terms of elevating the tone in Washington. So to whom, exactly, is he referring?

"MR. McCLELLAN: To elevating the tone?

"Q Yes.

"MR. McCLELLAN: All of us. Both parties, to work together to get things done for the American people.

"Q So everybody is kicking in the gutter, except him? (Laughter.)

"MR. McCLELLAN: No, that's not what he said. That's what you said. . . . The President has reached out. It requires others to reach back."

Poll Watch

Mark Murray writes on MSNBC.com: "Heading into Tuesday's State of the Union address and the beginning of the 2006 political season, President Bush faces an electorate that continues to be dissatisfied with his job performance, increasingly wants U.S. soldiers to come home from Iraq, and believes the Republican Party is associated more with special interests and lobbyists, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

"The overall political climate for Bush is 'gray and gloomy,' says Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted this survey with Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart. 'In general, people are just not in a happy mood.' "

Tim Russert reports on the NBC Nightly News: "The president hoped he had made some progress, but that's not the case. We only have a 39 presidential job approval rating for George W. Bush."

John Harwood writes in the Wall Street Journal: "A politically weakened President Bush addresses the nation tonight facing two clear demands from the American public: solve problems in the health-care system and bring U.S. troops home from Iraq.

"A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows health care at the top of Americans' priority list, with 76% calling increased access and lower costs 'an absolute priority' for 2006. Two-thirds say it is time to reduce troop levels in Iraq, while just 28% support maintaining existing troop levels. . . .

"Mr. Bush's Republican support is down slightly from 89% a year ago, amid signs of friction on hot-button issues such as immigration, fiscal policy and wiretaps conducted by the National Security Agency at Mr. Bush's direction without court orders. Just 25% of fellow Republicans say the Bush administration still has 'a vibrant and solid agenda.' One in four Republicans wants Congress, not the president, to take the lead on setting policy. And on Iraq, Mr. Bush's most important policy initiative, 45% of Republicans say it's time to reduce troop levels, up from 32% a year ago. . . .

"On the controversy over warrantless wiretaps by the National Security Agency, opinion is mixed. A narrow 51% majority says it approves of the Bush administration's approach to wiretapping international calls by suspected terrorists abroad and inside the U.S. But when asked whether the administration should obtain court orders for those wiretaps, the result is reversed, with 53% saying court orders should be required. Some 79% of Democrats, 58% of independents, and 27% of Republicans describe themselves as 'extremely' or 'quite' concerned that warrantless wiretaps 'could be misused to violate people's privacy.' "

Here are the complete results.

The Stakes

Steven Thomma writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "At stake is much more than the small new initiatives that he's expected to propose in his speech. His ability to control the national agenda in coming months could decide whether the government reins in federal spending, extends tax cuts, cracks down on illegal immigration, creates new ways to finance health care, opens the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling and pursues a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

"By November, Bush's degree of success will help determine whether Republicans maintain their decade-long control of Congress or whether Democrats take power in the House of Representatives, the Senate or both. A Democratic takeover of either chamber would give that party a say in the nation's agenda for the next two years, and the power to tie the Bush administration in knots with investigations.

Marc Sandalow writes in the San Francisco Chronicle that "observers from both parties will be looking for clues tonight about how Bush plans to regain control of his agenda for the remaining three years of his presidency. . . .

"Bush addresses the nation as polls show barely 4 in 10 Americans approve of the job he is doing, the worst standing of any president at the start of their sixth year with the exception of Richard Nixon, who would resign later that year over the Watergate scandal. Though Republicans now hold majorities in both houses of Congress, their grip on power is threatened, and the most sweeping initiatives proposed by Bush last year did not even come to votes."

The Challenges

Caroline Daniel writes in the Financial Times: "As he prepares to deliver the State of the Union address tonight he has been forced to tackle the issues bequeathed him by the man who has occupied the White House for the past five years: himself."

The Issues He'll Raise

Matthew Cooper writes for Time.com: "Presidential advisers have told Time that Bush will describe the world as full of change in the economy, demographics and technology -- and he'll tout his ideas as ways of giving Americans tools to deal with this tumult. He'll repackage several longstanding ideas -- like tort reform and making permanent the tax cuts that are due to expire in the coming years -- as essential to the American economy. He'll also tout health care reform -- especially the idea, endorsed by politicians from Hillary Rodham Clinton to Newt Gingrich, to use technology to lower health care costs -- but avoid getting mired in details like expanding Health Savings Accounts, which Bush has been talking up in recent days."

Elisabeth Bumiller and David E. Sanger write in the New York Times: "President Bush will renew a call for the development of alternative fuel for automobiles and promote the construction of new nuclear power plants in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, White House officials said Monday. . . .

"The issues have been part of Mr. Bush's agenda for years, but never a top priority. He will use his address to refocus attention on them at a time when oil is selling at more than $68 a barrel, close to its all-time high, and Americans are worried about the cost of fueling their cars and heating their homes. . . .

"White House officials said the address would contain no expensive policy initiatives at a time of growing deficits and when Congress would be focused on midterm elections. Mr. Bush will also use the address to announce new proposals in health care, fiscal policy and what White House officials are calling 'American competitiveness,' which includes investing in math and science and job training."

See my last several columns for more on what Bush is expected to say.


Bob Deans and Ken Herman write for Cox News Service that "instead of the raft of policy initiatives typically unveiled, Bush is looking this year to strike a tone of confidence and optimism, hallmarks of his presidency, to help buoy a sour national mood."

I wondered in yesterday's column whether Bush might temper his optimistic swagger with any humility about the things that have gone awry.

Presidential counselor Dan Bartlett pretty much put that idea to rest this morning on NBC's "Today" Show.

Here's anchor Ann Curry: "President Bush will address the nation this evening in the State of the Union address with most Americans polled saying the country is heading in the wrong direction. Earlier, I asked presidential counselor Dan Bartlett if the president will acknowledge the nation's challenges."

Here's Bartlett: "He'll look at these challenges. And sometimes people have a pessimistic outlook, but not this president. He is very optimistic about the future of our country. Because he's optimistic about the American people."

Skutnik Watch

John Dickerson writes in Slate on how to improve the State of the Union address. One suggestion: "No more living props. Ronald Reagan was the first to work audience members into his speech. In 1982, he publicly lauded Lenny Skutnik, a government worker who weeks before dove into the icy waters of the Potomac River to rescue victims of an airliner crash. That was a great bit of theater, but the exponential expansion of the number of 'heroes' in the first lady's box has made the gesture as meaningful as a Hallmark birthday card. Like most of the tedious and repetitive rituals now associated with the president's big speech, the practice has become so formulaic that to simply drop it would count as inspirational spontaneity."

But Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press that tonight "first lady Laura Bush will have among her guests for the speech an individual involved in energy-efficiency initiatives and a small-business owner struggling to provide health care coverage to his employees. Others to appear in her box in the House gallery as human symbols of Bush's biggest priorities were a military family and an Iraqi voter."

And Sen. Hillary Clinton is bringing her own counter-Skutnik to the House floor.

Martin C. Evans writes in Newsday that the Long Island wife of a 9/11 victim who has been critical of the president will be Clinton's guest.

Monica Gabrielle "said Bush has not held federal agencies accountable for allowing the attack to happen, and has not done enough to ensure that another attack does not happen."

Survivor Watch

Agence France Presse notes that "each year, one cabinet member -- a 'designated survivor' -- is chosen by the US Secret Service to sit out the event," and that "as is customary, the choice of designated survivor has been veiled in secrecy. . . .

"Being able to quickly spot which cabinet member has been designated to sit out the speech has become a favorite Washington parlor game on the night of the annual event."


Shailagh Murray and Charles Babington write in The Washington Post: "In the quaint old days, Congress's opposition party waited for the president to finish his annual State of the Union address before criticizing it. But the preemptive potshots that began several years ago have morphed into a week-long extravaganza that consumes far more time and words than President Bush will use tonight."

About That Economy

Mark Silva wrote in the Chicago Tribune yesterday from St. Louis: "It is against a backdrop of bad news from U.S. manufacturing giants such as Ford and General Motors Corp. -- companies that once empowered an American middle class and now struggle for survival -- that President Bush will deliver his State of the Union address Tuesday.

"The president will trumpet the nation's economic successes, with unemployment down and productivity up, crediting his tax cuts and calling on Congress to make them permanent. But the gap between the president's view and that of many working Americans is a yawning one and quite apparent in this once proud but dramatically shrunken middle-American city where good-paying work is hard to find."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "When President Bush gives his State of the Union address tonight, expect to hear a renewed call for setting the administration's first-term tax cuts in concrete, combined with warnings that letting the cuts expire would retard economic growth. Nothing could be further from the truth. . . .

"Tonight is Mr. Bush's night to speak. But it's the job of all of us to be critical listeners."

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "In his State of the Union speech tonight, President Bush will be tempted to take credit for the strength of the economy. The recovery that began four years ago has been robust. . . . But Mr. Bush should not crow too much. For one thing, U.S. prosperity is built on an alarming trade deficit, which symbolizes a broader fragility in the global economy. For another, economic progress is not showing up in higher wages for the typical worker."

Off He Goes

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "The White House says Bush will give one major speech per week for the next four weeks and in each lay out one domestic initiative he introduces on Tuesday.

"Bush travels Thursday to Maplewood, Minn., to talk about his competitiveness agenda. Proposals in that area will include boosting federal investment in math and science education, said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because Bush had not yet announced his ideas.

"The president also is traveling this week to Nashville, Tenn., where on Wednesday he will recap of his State of the Union address, and to Albuquerque, N.M., and Dallas on Friday to continue highlighting his initiatives to keep America's economy vital in an increasingly global marketplace, the official said."

They Love Him in Utah

David Finkel of The Washington Post travels to Randolph, Utah, population about 480, where Bush received 95.6 percent of the vote and support for him continues to be nearly unanimous.

What he finds is a mindset that "seems less a part of the modern United States than insulated from it."

He writes of Bush's believers: "One after another, in they come to say 'It's not Bush's fault' and 'He's trying to protect us.' "

Killer Drinking Game

Heather Havrilesky writes in the Los Angeles Times about a State of the Union drinking game pretty much guaranteed to kill you.

Watch for the Tell-Tale Signs

Jordan Lite writes in the New York Daily News: "Forget parsing his language for subtle meanings. Deciphering President Bush's State of the Union address tonight may be a lot simpler if you put the television on mute.

"The President's body language will tell us plenty about how strongly he believes in his words and how comfortable he is delivering his message, said Karen Bradley, a certified movement analyst at the University of Maryland, College Park. 'Don't just listen to the words. Look at the dance he's doing with us,' Bradley said."

So for instance, "The President tends to tense his shoulders when he's uncomfortable."

And the "Stevie Wonder head tilt" signifies that Bush may be having trouble reading the TelePrompTer and "may be 'listening' to his speech, either recalling the words he's memorized or, as skeptics speculated during the 2004 presidential debates, through an earpiece."

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