WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Most striking to me about President Bush's final State of the Union address Monday night was how unsurprising it was. Before the speech, White House officials set low expectations -- and Bush met them.
This is a president who had previously used this same stage of a packed House chamber to dramatically talk about an "axis of evil" to build the case for war in Iraq or to launch massive domestic initiatives like Social Security reform. But this time he offered little that was new or bold.
In fairness to the president, his hands are fairly well tied as he begins his final year in office. With a Democratic Congress, he's unlikely to get to very much of his agenda enacted. And truth be told, if he had walked up to the rostrum and outlined 10 complicated new initiatives, I'd be writing today about how unrealistic Bush was being.
So this was in part an acknowledgement of the new political reality, especially with that exciting, wide-open campaign to replace Bush getting more attention. (Did you notice how all the TV networks justifiably spent so much time on those delicious cutaway shots in the chamber of Sen. Barack Obama huddling with new best-friend-forever Sen. Edward Kennedy, while Sen. Hillary Clinton sat nearby, no doubt fuming?) Watch how Bush's megaphone is shrinking »
The bottom line is that the bully pulpit certainly seems smaller for Bush, but you have to give him this: On the two issues that are likely to define how his final year in office goes -- the economy and Iraq -- he is still setting the agenda. Read highlights from the address »
On the economy, the president tried to make the case he can work with Democrats to prevent America from sliding into recession. "In this election year, let us show our fellow Americans that we recognize our responsibilities and are determined to meet them," he said.
But he also prodded Democrats a bit, telling them to move quickly to complete action on that much-ballyhooed, bipartisan $150 billion economic stimulus plan and resist the temptation to load it up with extra provisions. "That would delay it or derail it, and neither option is acceptable," he said.
Pay attention to this back and forth. Senate Democrats have already starting adding other money to the package, such as unemployment compensation. Republicans are privately salivating at Democrats slowing down relief to hurting Americans and paying a price with voters in November, thereby mitigating the political damage for the GOP from a potential recession. Watch CNN analysts react to the president's address »
On Iraq, Bush had some good news to tout, especially compared to last year's State of the Union. Then he was defending a controversial surge initiative and Democrats were lining up to schedule votes to change his policy. Since then, Democrats have failed on vote after vote, while security on the ground in Iraq has gotten better and about 20,000 U.S. troops have started heading home.
Nevertheless, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, pointed out there has been little political progress by the Iraqi government. And even with the troop cuts, there will still be about 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, a reminder that like the economy, Iraq is a part of the president's legacy that is still unsettled.
As the president ponders his legacy on these two major issues, think of the irony The Washington Post pointed out earlier this week. The White House spent the past few years talking up a strong economy, but got very little credit because of struggles in Iraq. Now things are getting better in Iraq, but Bush is getting very little credit for that because .... the economy is getting worse. E-mail to a friend
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