Despite woes, Bush shows resolve


State Of The Union

January 24, 2007|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- The war in Iraq - President Bush's war - has decimated his standing and cost his party control of Congress. Opposition to his policies is mounting, including among Republicans, while his job approval ratings slink toward Nixon-at-the-depths-of-Watergate levels.

Yet, Bush tried to appear undaunted last night by his diminished popularity and what he called the "uncertainty in the air" and divided government in Washington.

His address marked the official unveiling of Bush 3.0: more conciliatory in tone and less sweeping in his prescriptions but unrepentant, too. He portrayed himself as the leader of a nation still at war, a commander in chief resolutely sticking with the strategy he has chosen.

Beyond the war, Bush signaled his determination to assert his relevance in the new Washington world and get things done before the 2008 campaign turns the public's attention elsewhere.

That won't be easy, as even his staunch supporters admit. The same lawmakers who applauded Bush's words last night are about to open a vigorous debate over his Iraq policy. The result could well be a vote of no-confidence in his decision to order thousands more U.S. troops into the middle of a deadly sectarian war, a blunt challenge to his policy that went unmentioned in his speech.

Without apology for past failures, he pleaded with Congress to give his latest plan a chance to work as he delivered a vigorous defense of his war policy. In what seemed to be an effort to put the onus on his critics, Bush warned that "the consequences of failure" in Iraq "would be grievous and far reaching," conceivably sparking a region-wide conflict that would be "a nightmare scenario" for America.

But two out of three Americans believe it was a mistake to go to war with Iraq, according to the latest polling, and a growing number of Republicans have joined the revolt against Bush's plan.

In the official Democratic response, freshman Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, an early war opponent whose son is a Marine in Iraq, condemned what he called Bush's "mismanaged war." The former Reagan administration official and decorated Vietnam veteran demanded that the administration open diplomatic talks with Iraq's neighbors, get U.S. soldiers off the streets of Baghdad and other cities, and "in short order" develop a plan for a U.S. withdrawal.

If Bush does not find a new way out of Iraq, Webb warned, Democrats "will be showing him the way."

Though his delivery at times seemed mechanical and flat, Bush was in good spirits at the start of his first appearance before a Congress run by the opposition party. He gave a warm and gracious nod to "Madam Speaker" Nancy Pelosi, the Baltimore-born Democrat who became the first woman to gavel a joint session to order from that perch. And he congratulated Democrats on their rise to power, though he apparently couldn't bring himself to say "Democratic," as written in his text. Instead, he welcomed the "Democrat" majority, a slur favored by Republican politicians.

Whether the wording revealed Bush's true feelings or not, Democrats are clearly skeptical that his actions will match his rhetoric about bipartisanship. Before Bush stepped to the microphone, some were noting his past failures to live up to his promises about changing the tone in Washington.

Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore blamed Bush for the capital's discord, noting that "the last six years of his presidency have been marked by profound divisiveness."

Analysts in both parties said that Bush may be confronting the beginning of the end of his presidency, which has two years to go.

"His situation is dire," said Scott Reed, a Republican strategist, who called the speech "one of his last chances to jump-start his presidency."

Bush's problem "is that he is totally viewed through the prism of Iraq, and until Iraq improves or the troops start coming home, he's going to be on the defensive," he said.

Republican strategist Ken Khachigian predicted that any agenda Bush put forward "is going to be hooted out of the Congress."

In 1987, Khachigian helped polish Ronald Reagan's State of the Union speech after Republicans lost the Senate and a new Democratic speaker had taken over in the House. At the time, Reagan was bedeviled by Middle East terror and the Iran-contra scandal.

"It almost didn't matter what he said, he was going to get dinged," said Khachigian. "And I think that's where Bush is now."

Bush, scaling back his ambitions, abandoned any reference to overhauling Social Security through private accounts, which was to have been his grandest domestic achievement. Effectively conceding the national effort to provide universal health coverage to the states, he proposed sending existing federal funds to governors who, impatient over Washington's failures, are finding ways to cover the uninsured.

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