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State of Union to focus on economy, officials say

  • Story Highlights
  • Bush's final State of Union speech won't introduce any new major initiatives
  • Approximately 42 minute speech Monday will focus on economy
  • Bush is expected to encourage continued support for new stimulus plan
  • No significant announcements are expected regarding troops in Iraq
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From Ed Henry
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- With fear of an impending recession, President Bush on Monday night will use his last State of the Union address to revisit unfinished business and press for quick action to keep the economy afloat, administration officials say.

President Bush addresses the nation as the Iraq war begins in March 2003.

Bush, who prefers focusing on a bike ride or a book most weekends, spent Sunday afternoon behind closed doors at the White House rehearsing the speech. Senior aides said that after a slew of tweaks, the speech runs about 42 minutes.

Downplaying expectations, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said last week that "it's just not realistic" for the president to present any major new policy initiatives with less than a year left in office.

One senior administration official said the president will try to build on last week's initial agreement with Democrats on a $150 billion stimulus plan by invoking a "spirit of bipartisanship that we can use to make other deals" in the future.

Much of the rest of the speech will focus on things Bush already has asked Congress to pass -- an overhaul of federal laws governing electronic surveillance, permanent extensions of his 2001 and 2003 tax cuts and free trade agreements with Colombia and Peru, Perino and other administration officials said.

Even then, parties acknowledge finding common ground on many of these issues will be difficult in a divisive presidential election year.

State of the Union
CNN's special coverage of President Bush's State of the Union address begins
Monday at 8 p.m. ET

Bush's previous annual speeches to Congress have been dominated by big projects -- invading Iraq, developing alternative fuels, the partial privatization of Social Security and the expansion of Medicare to cover prescription drugs. Interactive: Bush's message over the years »

Senior administration officials say the theme of this year's address will be "Trust and Empower" -- giving the American people more say in their own lives instead of turning it over to officials in Washington. The theme echoes what Bush has said throughout his presidency about keeping taxes low and lessening federal spending.

"His address will advocate his philosophy of trusting Americans, empowering them to make good and wise decisions, especially when it comes to keeping more of their hard-earned money, rather than sending it to Washington," Perino said.

Bush first floated the theme during an Oval Office meeting in April, and aides say it was fleshed out a bit over the Thanksgiving break. The president's speech writers provided him an actual outline around December 1.

The president started focusing more intently on the speech when he had frequent blocks of time on Air Force One during his recent trip through the Middle East.

According to one senior aide, "Every time that he got on the plane in the Mideast, he would joke to the speech writers, 'Where's the speech?' "

In recent days, Bush has restated his demands for a revision of federal wiretapping authority and for the permanent extension of the $1.6 trillion in tax cuts he pushed through Congress. On Thursday, he said extending those tax cuts will ensure the U.S. economy will "continue to lead the world."

But the Democratic leaders of Congress are opposed to making the tax cuts permanent. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, declared Friday that it is time for "tax fairness" and not the time to "make permanent tax cuts for the richest Americans."

Likewise, the Colombia and Peru free-trade pacts with face uphill battles on Capitol Hill, with many lawmakers raising concerns about U.S. jobs being shipped overseas.

And Bush will continue to urge patience with the war in Iraq, saying more time is needed for the Iraqi government to reach a political settlement of the nearly 5-year-old war and to lock in the security gains made since he dispatched nearly 30,000 additional U.S. troops there a year ago.

No major announcements on bringing more troops home from Iraq are expected, because Bush is waiting for Gen. David Petraeus, who is delivering his next progress report to Congress in March, administration officials said.

Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, told CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer" on Sunday that the Pentagon wants to bring troops home quickly to reduce the strain on the armed services -- "But we want to do it ... in a way that will allow these gains to be maintained," he said. "We don't want to jeopardize what we have fought so hard for."

Democrats, however, have tried unsuccessfully to wind down the war since they took control of Congress last January and their leaders continue to make clear their patience has run thin.

"He'll tell us the war has turned a corner and that victory is in sight," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, told reporters Friday. But he said Americans have heard that many times since Bush's now infamous declaration of victory over Iraq in May 2003.

"Five years, nearly 4,000 deaths and half a trillion dollars later, the mission is still not accomplished," Reid said.

Aides say the president will also spend some time touting his efforts at helping to forge a lasting Mideast peace. This is the one Bush initiative that has the most potential upside in terms of helping him to build a strong legacy if he's able to pull such a major last-minute gambit.

But there is deep skepticism around the world that Bush can pull off such a diplomatic coup that has been unreachable for so many U.S. presidents before him, especially given a new spate of violence between Israel and the Palestinians.

Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland declared Sunday that Bush's peace initiative is already "on life support."

And a major battle is brewing in the Senate over Bush's controversial warrantless surveillance program, which aides said will play a prominent role in Monday night's address.

With a permanent revision of federal wiretapping laws now being fiercely debated in the Senate, the White House told Reid this weekend that Bush will veto any temporary extension of a law -- set to expire February 1.


White House officials argue there will be an "intelligence gap" when the current law expires, making the nation vulnerable to another terrorist attack.

"The intelligence community needs a long-term law to carry out its programs to protect the nation, not a patchwork of 6-month extensions and 30-day extensions," one administration official said Saturday. But Reid fired back that if there's a terrorist attack, the White House will be to blame. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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