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Rothenberg One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.

Stuart Rothenberg: Choices for Bush as he prepares key address

By Stuart Rothenberg

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President George W. Bush has another fine line to walk on Tuesday, January 29, when he delivers his first State of the Union address.

Clearly, these are not the best of times for the country. The terrorist acts of September 11 still hang as a dark cloud over the nation and over the president's speech to Congress. And the nation's economy remains weak, with growing unemployment numbers likely over the next few months.

And yet, the country has seemingly pulled together following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and Mr. Bush's poll numbers are very, very good. Congress passed and the president signed an education bill and an airport security bill. And the war in Afghanistan has gone better than expected.

President Bush must therefore give voice to a variety of emotions that often appear at odds with each other. He'll need to be tough but also empathetic. He'll need to acknowledge hardship yet promise better days ahead. He'll need to be hopeful without appearing like Pollyanna.

The terrorists' acts and the nation's responses to them guarantee that the president will receive a warm, bipartisan welcome from those attending the joint session of Congress. With Americans still grieving from the acts of September 11, and the country at war with terrorism, the president will surely reiterate America's resolve to root out Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, and to uncover terrorists wherever they hide.

Mr. Bush has received high marks for his job performance since the attacks -- including his building of an international coalition, his prosecution of the war and his firmness of resolve -- but how far does he go now in identifying additional supporters of terrorism and potential new targets? And how much should the subject of terrorism dominate the address?

While foreign policy will constitute a large and important part of the President's remarks, he cannot afford to ignore domestic issues, from the state of the economy to trade policy, health care, prescription drugs and energy. While these issues have been largely ignored since mid-September, they remain important and are likely to grow in salience if the battle against terrorism continues to evolve from a war to a prolonged fight.

Mr. Bush certainly will continue to call for passage of a stimulus bill, an energy bill and trade promotion authority. In calling for an economic stimulus package that will help the country out of recession, he will likely take the opportunity to document the steps he and others in government have done to ease the pain of the recession and get the economy going again. But he must also call for new strategies to boost economic growth.

The State of the Union, after all, kicks off an election year, and the president undoubtedly will use the nationally televised speech to position himself and his party as best he can for the November elections, which are likely to turn on Mr. Bush's ability to manage the economy.

But here, again, the president must walk a fine line. Clearly, he must not, and assuredly will not, adopt a partisan tone in any of his remarks. He cannot preach unity and bipartisanship when it comes to the war on terrorism and then blast the Democratic Senate on domestic issues.

While the president is likely to call on Congress to pass his agenda, he is also likely to single out and thank Democratic members of Congress -- Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts would seem to be a good bet -- who have worked with him to pass legislation.

And yet, key questions remain: Will President Bush reiterate his support for controversial proposals such as drilling in the Arctic, his long dormant faith-based initiative and new tax cuts? Will he press school vouchers, partial privatization of Social Security and the confirmation of his judicial nominees, any of which could rile up congressional Democrats? And how close will he come to citing Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle for blocking his agenda in the upper chamber?

Domestic issues are potentially more damaging for the president, since his party has a less well-developed agenda on domestic matters.

There is actually less pressure on President Bush now than there would have been without the events of September 11. The president has performed well since the attacks, and he is assured of rousing applause when he turns to the nation's response to terrorism. But any national address brings choices and critics, and George W. Bush knows that the whole country -- the whole world -- will be watching him on January 29.




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