- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 3, 2006

President Bush is planning to spend 2006 getting back to the basics of his agenda by making the case for his policies on Iraq and the economy instead of pursuing lofty new domestic initiatives.

Mr. Bush acknowledged that he erred last year by spending so much time trying in vain to persuade Congress to reform Social Security, while passively allowing Democrats to attack his Iraq policy. He recovered somewhat in the past eight weeks by aggressively counterattacking Democrats on Iraq and trying to claim credit for the expanding economy.

“The president will begin the new year very much in the way he left 2005, which is to discuss the country’s two top priorities, keeping our economy strong and growing stronger and creating jobs, and also winning the war on terrorism,” said White House deputy press secretary Trent Duffy.

That is not to say Mr. Bush will not reveal new initiatives in his State of the Union address, tentatively scheduled for Jan. 31. But those initiatives are expected to be more modest than his ambitious quest to reform Social Security, partly because it will be harder to enact his agenda in a congressional re-election year.

Aides hinted that Mr. Bush will try to make his tax cuts permanent, pass an immigration reform law and push for additional energy legislation, including a measure to open oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Although he has not officially abandoned Social Security reform, he will spend less time promoting the long-shot initiative.

More pressing issues include the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr. and a permanent extension of the USA Patriot Act. Mr. Bush also will continue his defense of a National Security Agency program to eavesdrop on Americans suspected of communicating with al Qaeda operatives overseas.

“I’m just going to keep doing my job,” Mr. Bush told reporters at his year-end press conference. “My job is to lead, keep telling the American people what I believe, work to bring people together to achieve a common objective, stand on principle, and that’s the way I’m going to lead. I did so in 2005, and I’m going to do so in 2006.”

To that end, Mr. Bush plans to give a speech on the economy Friday. Last month, Allan B. Hubbard, director of the president’s National Economic Council, said Mr. Bush had “not been doing a good job” of talking up the economy.

Other White House aides have expressed dismay that while the economy has been expanding, polls show many Americans have a negative view of the economy and blame Mr. Bush for not doing better. The president hopes to counter such perceptions in 2006.

Later this month, Mr. Bush will give a speech on Iraq, where U.S. troops are training local forces to take over their own security. Although the president has rebuffed Democratic demands for a swift pullout of U.S. forces, he is expected to gradually withdraw troops as the Iraqi army assumes greater responsibilities.

“The United States has a vital interest in the success of a free Iraq, so in the year ahead, we will continue to pursue the comprehensive strategy for victory that I have discussed with you in recent weeks,” Mr. Bush said in his New Year’s Eve radio address.

“As we help Iraq build a peaceful and stable democracy, the United States will gain an ally in the war on terror, inspire reformers across the Middle East, and make the American people more secure.”

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