Making the case for a second term

President casts himself as caring, vigilant leader

State Of The Union

Reaction And Analysis

January 21, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush put on full display last night the extraordinary political advantage wielded by a president who intends to seek a second term.

Striding into the august setting of the U.S. Capitol to spirited applause and rapt attention, the president delivered a State of the Union address that was essentially a forceful case for his re-election this year. He never had to mention the campaign or utter the name of a single Democrat.

For an incumbent, sounding unlike a politician - seeming to float above the bare-knuckled noise of squabbling candidates - is a time-tested political strategy. Last night, Bush cast himself as a busy leader, concerned about people who need jobs and determined to prevent terrorists from attacking America.

Yet the timing of the speech - set by Congress, with persuasion from the White House - could not have been more favorable for Bush's campaign team, led by his political maestro, Karl Rove, and his campaign manager, Ken Mehlman. It had the effect, one day after Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts scored a stunning victory in the Iowa caucuses, of catapulting the president and his ideas right back into the headlines.

Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book Presidents As Candidates: Inside the White House for the Presidential Campaign, described the State of the Union speech as "really the opening salvo of Bush's presidential campaign" and "the perfect political event" for him.

"It makes the Democrats look like they are candidates trying to pander while the president is above the fray," she said.

Still, in some ways, Bush's challenge last night was formidable. Polls show that Americans, while supportive of the president's war on terrorism, have become more doubtful about his handling of domestic matters, from the economy to education and health care.

More than two years after the Sept. 11 attacks, voters increasingly say they believe America's top priority should be tending to such everyday issues, rather than an all-consuming focus on fighting terrorism. If so, it suggests that doubts about Bush's domestic agenda could become a burgeoning vulnerability in the 10 months before voters decide whether to re-elect him. The polls show the president in a statistical dead-heat against a generic Democratic candidate.

The strategy for Bush's campaign, as it took shape publicly last night, seems a dual one: He will play to his strengths, reminding voters of the pain of Sept. 11, how the president comforted a stricken nation and reacted boldly with a war on terrorism. And he will seek to neutralize his potential weakness, reassuring Americans that he is working tirelessly to address worries at home.

The president's speech came at a moment that lacked some of the gravity and drama of his two previous addresses - one of which came just months after Sept. 11, the other in the build-up to the invasion of Iraq. Bush's tone seemed less emotional and more methodical, displaying a man no longer comforting a mournful nation or preparing it for war. He sounded like a leader defending his record, eager for support.

Bush was most emphatic in discussing the need to protect against terrorists, signaling that as a candidate he will speak often of Sept. 11 and highlight his performance in its aftermath.

"After the chaos and carnage of Sept. 11," he said solemnly, "it is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers. The terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States, and war is what they got."

But in striving to elevate the importance of matters at home, Bush reversed the order of topics from last year's speech, when he spoke of domestic ideas before building to his climax: a case for war in Iraq. This year, in contrast, he began with foreign policy, then culminated with plans to train workers and create jobs and programs to ensure that more Americans have health coverage.

His new programs, which would require little new money, were far from ambitious. His advisers seemed to believe that Bush could connect with voters with empathetic tones and compassionate ideas, even without major financial commitments.

If the president was hoping to reverse skepticism among some voters, last night offered a rare opportunity. Few occasions on the campaign trail will afford him the chance to speak to a national audience tuned in from living rooms across America.

"This is the National Cathedral of the bully pulpit," said Allan J. Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University. In Bush's previous State of the Union speeches, Lichtman suggested, he spoke of his domestic agenda "like he was just ordering a take-out dinner, devoting all of his verve and elan to foreign policy."

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