- The Washington Times - Monday, January 28, 2008

President Bush’s final State of the Union speech will function as a chronological but also thematic bookend, closing out six years of foreign-policy speeches by circling back to a topic that has not been featured prominently in his annual address to Congress since 2001: the economy.

Every speech since the president’s first State of the Union — which technically was not a State of the Union, but is remembered by most as one — has focused on terrorism and the war in Iraq.

But Iraq has moved off the front pages this year as violence there has decreased, and while Mr. Bush can take some credit for the difference his troop surge has made, he will have to devote more time in his speech to confronting the greatest current concern to most Americans.

The U.S. economy is facing a possible recession, and Mr. Bush will continue his effort as convincer-in-chief. He will continue to say that the economy is “fundamentally strong,” while trying to reassure Americans that the economic-stimulus package agreed to last week will make a difference.

The occasion of Mr. Bush’s address also will raise the question of the president’s legacy. Democratic leaders and interest groups this week already have begun to pummel Mr. Bush for what they perceive to be his greatest mistakes: the war in Iraq, his tax cuts, the response to Hurricane Katrina, resistance to mandatory emissions caps and the growth of anti-U.S. sentiment around the world.

But the president, who has resisted what he calls “navel-gazing,” said he will continue to save reflection for after he leaves office.

“I really haven’t had a chance to be reflective about what the last State of the Union may mean,” Mr. Bush told USA Today in an interview to preview the speech. “I can’t tell you if I stand up there and say to myself, ‘Here I am, the last State of the Union,’ and some kind of emotion washes over me. I doubt that’s going to be the case.”

“When it’s all said and done, I will have finished it with all my soul and all my might, and will go do something different. But there will be plenty of times for reflection on the job,” he said.

Presidents usually present new ideas or reiterate calls for reform in their State of the Union speeches. In his last year, Mr. Bush will have little to say that has not been said before.

Former Clinton speechwriter John Pollack said the speeches are “notorious grab bags,” but that with the dearth of new material Mr. Bush has to work with this year, Mr. Bush’s speechwriters “have an especially tough job.”

Mr. Bush plans to begin his speech by focusing on domestic policy and will close it with foreign policy. The president will push Congress to move quickly on two “front-burner issues”: The economic-stimulus package and a permanent update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

After that, Mr. Bush’s speech will touch on issues that long have been themes in the president’s annual speech, but on which he does not expect action this year: making permanent the tax cuts set to expire in 2010, reforming Social Security and immigration, and reforming the tax code to make health care more affordable.

On foreign policy, Mr. Bush will tell Congress that in the wake of his recent efforts to push forward the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, “peace is now a real possibility.”

Mr. Bush also will reiterate his request from Dec. 1, 2007, to double the amount of aid to Africa for HIV/AIDS, from $15 billion to $30 billion over five years. And he also will continue to promote his freedom agenda in the Middle East, which has been a theme for much of his second term.

This speech will be the final address for Mr. Bush’s top speechwriter, William McGurn, who joined the White House in 2005 and is resigning. He will be replaced by his deputy, Marc Thiessen.