Twin crises raise stakes for Bush in key address

Goal to make case for war, ease economic worries

January 27, 2003|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The prospect of a looming war in Iraq would alone make President Bush's State of the Union speech tomorrow night momentous. So would the sputtering economy - if that, too, were the only crisis he faced.

But those twin challenges have coincided, setting the backdrop for one of the most crucial speeches of Bush's presidency. It occurs at a defining moment for the country and the world. And it comes as the president's domestic and international audience has grown more skeptical of his leadership.

"We have great challenges, both at home and abroad," a senior White House official said. "And we do have the responsibility to address these challenges at the same time."

The president, the official said, will "demonstrate that we are equal to the task."

Bush's aides, who have in the past sought to lower expectations for major speeches, are not doing so this time. Rather, they say the president will speak expansively about the economy, seeking to reassure Americans who have grown more doubtful of his ability to produce a vigorous recovery.

In addition, aides say, the president will offer a convincing case for why America must make final preparations for a war against Iraq.

Bush will announce no final decision about military action, officials said, in the speech, which comes the day after United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq are to issue a report on their findings. But he will stress that the United States is in the final phase of its effort to force Saddam Hussein to disarm voluntarily and thus avoid an attack.

Aides say Bush will sound every bit the wartime leader, acknowledging that his orders to send forces to the Persian Gulf region have uprooted families and explaining why Americans are being asked to put their lives in danger.

He will "explain to the moms and dads and husbands and wives of our men and women who wear the uniform the importance, and the necessity, for the actions that the world community and the United States will take," the senior White House official said.

`Crucial moment'

Analysts note that Bush is being severely tested in two areas - the economy and foreign policy - that can make or break presidencies.

"This is really a crucial moment for him because the [TV] networks do not put aside prime time for the president too often," said Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar who was a speechwriter for President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

"The president has these two balls in the air - one domestic, the other international," Hess said. "If he ends up catching them, he will be successful and is re-elected. If he drops them, he will be defeated. And now, he has this chance to state his positions as coherently and as elegantly as he can before a very large audience."

Robust agenda

Previewing the speech, expected to last slightly less than an hour, aides say Bush will lay out a robust agenda. He will talk at length, for example, about his ideas for a prescription drug benefit for senior citizens. They say he will also speak about his plan to open more federal funding to religious groups that provide social services.

The president will argue that his agenda is "compassionate" and that it reaches out to Americans of all races, faiths and economic levels. That is, in part, an effort to help his party, the GOP, mend its image with African-American voters, who have been unhappy with some recent White House decisions, aides said. But Bush probably won't address those concerns specifically.

Much of the speech, officials said, will be dedicated to the economy and to foreign policy, including Iraq, the war against terrorism and the nuclear threat from North Korea. Officials said Bush would discuss why the United States has chosen to pursue a diplomatic solution with North Korea yet is on the verge of war with Iraq.

Last week, the president and his advisers increased the rhetoric toward Iraq, saying Hussein's time to avoid a war was fast running out. Yet some close allies, such as France and Germany, spoke out forcefully against attacking Iraq - at least before giving weapons inspectors more time.

Meanwhile, Bush will press for his $670 billion tax-cut plan, which, he says, will stimulate the economy in the short run and produce long-term growth. The plan has met a torrent of criticism from Democrats and some Republicans who say it would mostly benefit the wealthy, swell budget deficits and do little to energize the economy.

As Bush prepares to address those topics, the public is eager to hear from him but growing less supportive of his leadership. His approval ratings have slipped from a peak near 90 percent just after the Sept. 11 attacks to below 60 percent in most polls.

`The opportunity'

In a survey released last week by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, a majority of Americans saw tomorrow's speech as "more important than previous addresses." A majority, 61 percent, said Bush could be doing more to boost the economy, compared with 46 percent at this time last year.

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