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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: Bush inauguration presents another test, another opportunity

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- As a candidate for the presidency, George W. Bush passed each and every test. He survived primary and general election debates, overcame more experienced political opponents and sounded presidential when he needed to -- including during the extended post-election vote-counting period.

But now, with Bush about to become the nation's 43rd president, he must once again deliver an important speech. And the speech could say a lot about the kind of reception his administration will receive from the public, the media and the politicians.

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Though they aren't required by the U.S. Constitution, inaugural addresses date back to George Washington. Every one since Harry Truman's in 1949 has been carried live on television. Part of the pomp of the inaugural activities, these speeches have reflected the state of the presidency and the nation over the years.

The addresses are usually upbeat and optimistic, and they have offered previous presidents an opportunity to rally public opinion behind the new administration and to encourage a unity of national purpose. At times, they have also been used to heal wounds and overcome divisions.

Bush's inaugural address gives him a chance to echo many of his previous themes. It's an especially important opportunity since it comes at a time when the new president must once again reach out to allies and opponents alike. And it comes less than two weeks after Linda Chavez withdrew from consideration as labor secretary.

Put most simply, the president-elect's inauguration speech is important because millions of Americans and every journalist on earth will be listening to it, hoping to catch a signal about the tone of the new administration. And of course, for the first time, George W. Bush will be speaking as president of the United States, not merely as a candidate or even a president-elect.

Everyone who hears the new president's comments will be listening for something. Republicans would love to hear the nation's new chief executive talk about lower taxes, a stronger military, and the importance of character and integrity in the Oval Office. Democrats would prefer to hear him call for prescription drug coverage, campaign finance reform and education funding. And independents are hoping his comments reveal a commitment to bipartisanship and civility, as well as an ability to lead.

But inaugural addresses usually aren't the place to talk about specific policies. Specifics can divide people. Instead, the new president is likely to emphasize that he will lead an administration of inclusiveness, one that seeks to represent all Americans. The controversy surrounding his election and the equally divided electorate require that he acknowledge the the unique aspects of the 2000 presidential election and the divisions in the country -- much as President Jimmy Carter did in his 1977 inaugural address.

Will the president-elect limit himself to platitudes? Probably. But while most presidents have delivered inaugural speeches filled with soaring imagery, Bush has never before demonstrated an ability to do so effectively. He's much more effective dealing with small groups, or even one-on-one. Even more difficult for the new president, he follows Bill Clinton, who is known for his oratory and empathy.

So what approach might Bush take in this, his first speech as both head of state and leader of the administration? He may find that the best thing for him to do is be honest and down-to-earth.

Given the partisan nature of the past eight years, the scandals in the White House, the weird November election and the bitterness running throughout Capitol Hill, most Americans are looking for common-sense solutions, not gimmicks, crusades, politics or phony poetry.



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