WASHINGTON -- It's exactly the kind of legacy-building initiative President Bush is looking for: an ambitious campaign, hatched by a bipartisan crowd of lawmakers, executives and academics, to improve U.S. science and engineering capabilities and keep the nation from falling dangerously behind tough economic competitors, such as China and India.
There's just one problem for Bush: It costs $10 billion a year.
The problem is one example of the pressures facing the president as he puts the finishing touches on his Jan. 31 State of the Union message.
Bush, working to boost his popularity and enhance his party's fortunes, wants to present an appealing agenda to combat public anxiety about the war in Iraq and to show he's a leader ready to tackle big issues. But in a time of soaring budget deficits and a costly war, with conservatives stepping up pressure to rein in government spending, he might not be able to afford one.
Bush has hinted publicly that a new commitment to competitiveness and innovation will be part of his message this year.
"In my State of the Union, I'm going to address this," he said at a recent town hall meeting in Louisville, Ky. "In order for us to be competitive, we better make darn sure our future has got the skills to fill the jobs of the 21st century."
That is a defining theme of a National Academy of Sciences report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," which has captured the administration's attention and is helping to shape Bush's agenda.
The report warned that without a major push by the government, the United States would lose out to foreign competitors. The panel of academics, policy specialists and corporate leaders that drafted it, led by former Lockheed Martin Chairman Norman Augustine, called on the country to "prepare with great urgency to preserve its strategic and economic security."
The White House appears to be heeding the call; Bush's top advisers say they take the report seriously. Five Cabinet secretaries attended a competitiveness summit last month at the Commerce Department, where executives and scientists urged them to act on the report's proposals. Senior aides have met with lawmakers who are part of a bipartisan group, including Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, that plans to introduce the proposal in Congress this week.
But Bush's team is also sounding notes of budgetary caution.
Andrew H. Card, the chief of staff, told a recent gathering at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that while the report is getting a "very close look," its proposals had to pass muster with the White House budget director, Joshua B. Bolten.
Bolten has met with lawmakers pushing to enact the recommendations, including improvements in math and science education, more government money for basic research, and hefty tax incentives for innovation.
"I said, `Josh, the president has a great opportunity here,' " said Republican Rep. Sherwood Boehlert of New York, recounting a breakfast at the White House, where a group discussed the proposal for more than an hour. "He looked at me and he said, `Well, where do we get the money for all this?' "
Bush's aides are keeping the details of his State of the Union speech and budget submission under wraps as they prepare for the annual rituals, akin to a corporation's rollout of a new product. The president unveils his agenda before a joint session of Congress, then goes on the road to promote it as his $2 trillion-plus budget lands on Capitol Hill showing how he'd pay for it.
This year, Bush is expected to talk about tackling high health care costs and reshaping immigration laws, cutting taxes and fighting the war in Iraq. He also plans to portray himself as tough on fiscal matters by calling for spending cuts in programs unrelated to national defense.
Lawmakers and lobbyists watching the "Gathering Storm" innovation plan say it has a good chance of landing on Bush's wish list. They are less certain that the president will request the funding needed to implement the changes.
"Grand visions without a sustainable, reliable revenue stream is just empty rhetoric," said Mikulski, who wants to use her post on the Senate spending panel in charge of science to help fund it.
Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who is teaming with Mikulski and others this week to introduce the plan in Congress, said it would gain crucial momentum if Bush becomes "the head cheerleader."
Still, budget specialists note the times couldn't be worse for an ambitious new domestic program, and that Bush might lack the influence to launch one.
"Lyndon Johnson in his prime would have trouble getting it through," said Stanley E. Collender, a former budget aide to congressional Democrats.
Bush faces many budget demands, including a nearly $800 billion Medicare drug measure, military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, rebuilding the Gulf Coast and farm subsidies.