WASHINGTON -- President Bush faces the challenge tonight of convincing an angry, dispirited electorate that he understands the forces miring them in recession and has a solid, practical plan for getting them out of it.
Mr. Bush's election-year State of the Union address is expected to mark a strategic point in his presidency that may determine whether he can rekindle confidence in his leadership on domestic issues and restore his popularity in the polls.
"If he doesn't, he'll get torn apart," predicted Rep. Mickey Edwards, R-Okla., chairman of the House Republican Conference. "He'll again come across as a guy who doesn't know what he's going to do."
The president and his advisers have backpedaled considerably from their earlier, eager anticipation of tonight's performance. Nothing dramatic remains to be announced, they say, and there will be nothing much new to faithful readers of previously leaked accounts.
Mr. Bush inspired most of the hype for tonight's address himself by waiting until this moment of maximum exposure to the American public to detail his economic proposals. He has chosen to use it, aides say, by projecting an image that is confident, statesmanlike and low-key.
Final drafts of the speech, which was put together by a team of 10 including top campaign officials, were circulated to some longtime Bush friends to make sure that its conversational tone sounds like him.
Thus, the White House is promising an address that may be short on eloquence but loaded with the "meat" of policy decisions that have been privately debated for months.
Mr. Bush will propose small tax cuts to stimulate the economy, to be financed mostly by what some economists have called "gimmicks" that borrow from future revenues; a major cut in defense spending over five years that may also help finance some of the cuts; a three-month freeze on new regulations applied to business; and the first tentative steps toward reforms in health care.
New spending, already revealed by the White House in a series of budget previews aimed at milking maximum political benefit from them, will include small increases to address drug abuse, environmental protection, revitalizing the space program and preschool education for the disadvantaged. However, that money may be subtracted from other parts of the domestic program.
In a foreign initiative with budget consequences, the president is expected to announce unilateral cuts in land- and sea-based multiple-warhead missiles and to encourage the former Soviet republics to match them.
This year's record budget deficit -- in excess of $352 billion -- is expected to remain undiminished by the Bush proposals.
The president's long-awaited "economic action plan" has already come under sharp attack from economists who fear it will accomplish little but cost much in the future.
"It's one of the most outrageous examples I've seen, in over two decades in Washington, of advancing policies that will damage the economy and leave us in a big hole for years to come as a result of efforts to pander for political purposes in an election year," said Robert Greenstein, executive director of the non-profit Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
The Bush team is keenly aware that the speech also will inevitably be greeted with disappointment by congressional Democrats and even some right-wingers within their own GOP, whom they note all have a vested interest in seeing the president's popularity remain in its current slump.
"Our political opponents have tried to raise expectations to the point where the bar is so high it can't be jumped over," Marlin Fitzwater, the White House spokesman, complained yesterday.
Even so, the State of the Union will not be a political speech, and there will be none of the Republican president's familiar bashing of the Democratic-controlled Congress while he is a guest in its chambers.
That will come later, Bush advisers say, if Congress fails to act quickly in enacting the president's proposals.
Mr. Bush's ability to reverse the downward slide of his poll ratings may have less to do with whether his proposals actually pass than the daunting task of convincing Americans that the economic cloud they're under will soon pass.
"With all the conflicting cross-currents of emotion and concern people have, it's pretty hard to move them and lift their spirits -- especially when you know the guys on the other side are rooting for you to fail," observed Pete Teeley, a former press secretary to Mr. Bush.
Beyond that, there is the challenge for Mr. Bush to present himself as credible to an electorate which accepts the notion that he doesn't care much for domestic policy and has no core beliefs on which to base his programs as he does in foreign policy.
"People feel this is like broccoli to him," said Howard Wachtel, a professor of economics at The American University, referring to the president's least favorite vegetable. "If he has to eat his broccoli to get his dessert, he will. But he won't like it."