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Aides outline Bush State of Union address

From John King
CNN Washington Bureau

Watch CNN beginning at 8:45 p.m. ET for full coverage of the State of the Union and the Democratic response. 
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Middle East
Social Security

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush in his State of the Union address Wednesday night will offer some new details of how he wants Congress to revamp the Social Security program and voice optimism that the election of a new Palestinian leadership opens the door to reviving the Middle East peace process, senior aides said Tuesday.

President Bush will make his address at 9 p.m. ET (0200 GMT Thursday).

He will talk about goals for the U.S. military mission in Iraq but will not agree with Democrats who have called on the White House to offer an exit timetable in the wake of the Iraq elections, the aides said.

Previewing the speech to reporters, a senior administration official said it is a "unique" speech in that it so closely follows the president's second inaugural address, and offers Bush an opportunity to build on the "ideals" outlined in that speech and make clear his specific goals and legislative blueprint for the second term.

Without applause, the speech runs about 40 minutes. Bush had two run-throughs with a Teleprompter on Monday and two more were on his schedule Tuesday. The first half of the speech will be dedicated to domestic issues, the second to foreign policy.

Much of the domestic agenda will be familiar, as Bush calls on Congress to pass legal reforms, his energy program, job-training initiatives and changes to immigration laws.

But the signature domestic theme will be Social Security, and without offering any new specifics themselves, senior aides promised Bush would give a more detailed outline of how he envisions major changes to the program, including an option for younger Americans to divert some Social Security payroll taxes into private investment accounts.

The senior official who briefed reporters said Bush "will advance the ball" on Social Security and offer examples of how he thinks what he calls "personal retirement accounts" should work.

One model Bush will cite is the thrift savings accounts available to members of Congress and federal employees.

Bush for months has said he would not negotiate with himself or in public by offering much detail on how he wants Social Security changes to unfold. But Democrats have suggested the president should offer details.

In addition, many Republicans have complained to the White House that their constituents are uneasy and that if Bush wants action this year he is going to have to provide more details and sustained leadership.

The senior official at the briefing told reporters that after Wednesday night's speech there will be no question that Bush is willing "to provide the necessary political leadership on some of the most difficult" issues involved in Social Security reform and that the speech would represent "a bold step forward in the debate."

The officials suggested Bush would provide more insight on where he draws the line when he says he does not want the program changed for those "at or near retirement."

The official repeatedly refused to answer when asked if Bush would acknowledge that benefits guaranteed now would have to be reduced to put the program on a better long-term fiscal footing.

But he suggested the president would make clear there are difficult choices to be made, and would offer a detailed description of the current financial forecast, making clear his view that if changes are not made then benefit cuts and payroll tax increases will be necessary in the future.

In the half of the speech dedicated to domestic issues, Bush will say his budget for next year will require tough choices and suggest to Congress it is a "perfect opportunity to join him in a spirit of fiscal discipline."

Democrats have blamed the Bush tax cuts for the record deficits, and many fiscal conservatives in the Republican ranks also have complained about what they consider to be far too generous increases in government spending in the first Bush term.

In the half of the speech dedicated to international issues, Bush will claim progress in both Iraq and Afghanistan, among other places, in combating terrorism and advancing freedom.

On Iraq, he will cite the elections as a historic step but also make clear the U.S. military mission will not be complete until Iraq takes additional steps toward self-government and until there is significantly more progress in training and equipping Iraqi security forces.

Aides promise an upbeat assessment of the prospects for reviving the Middle East peace process, and a pledge by Bush to fully involve the United States in that effort.

And while steering clear of an "Axis of Evil" formulation, he will speak of the nuclear showdowns with Iran and North Korea, making clear that he continues to believe both can be resolved through diplomacy.

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