- The Washington Times - Monday, January 27, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 27 (UPI) — President George W. Bush goes before Congress on Tuesday night to give what is, officially, the second State of the Union address of his presidency.

In reality, he has expressed his views on the state of the union many times since the unprovoked attacks perpetrated by terrorist followers of Osama bin Laden on Sept. 11, 2001. He has been doing so since his forceful declaration of U.S. resolve before the United Nations General Assembly in November 2001.

Bush is not a particularly dynamic speaker. His delivery is not polished and he sometimes stumbles over words. He is outclassed as an orator by several presidents of recent vintage, especially Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

Even his father, whose odd speech patterns were so effectively mimicked by Saturday Night Live's Dana Carvey, seemed to have a better command of the words.

But Bush is, nevertheless, compelling when he assumes the bully pulpit. When the subject is serious and he is serious, he projects a determination and commitment that few if any other presidents could hope to match.

It is a hard note to hit. Go too far in one direction and it comes off overly stern, parental or schoolmarmish. Veer too far in the other direction and it becomes angry, plaintive and shrill.

The 2003 State of the Union address comes at a time when dark clouds are gathered on the horizon. The nation is poised for a war that could come Tuesday or next month or never. The economy, while rallying, has too many gaps and bumps to be booming let alone in a recovery.

As a number of liberals have observed with no lack of gloating, the course of the nation has been reversed in the comparatively short time Bush has been at the helm.

Under Clinton, peace. Under Bush, war. Under Clinton, boom. Under Bush, bust. Under Clinton, balanced budgets. Under Bush, deficits.

The list goes on. Defenders of the president volunteer that little if any of this is Bush's fault. If by that they mean that events beyond his control have brought the nation to this point, then they are right. However, as the president gets the credit for the good times, he also gets the blame for the bad times whether he is directly responsible or not.

The nation approaches the speech pessimistically, as if the problems America faces at home and abroad are beyond Bush's ability — or that of any president — to solve.

His job approval and personal approval numbers remain high — not in the stratosphere as they were a year ago, but high enough that it is a fair bet Clinton would have gladly swapped a congressional rebuke for his conduct with Monica Lewinsky to earn them.

When Bush ascends the podium Tuesday night, his first challenge is to reassure the nation that a steady hand is on the tiller of government. It is not time for a soaring speech that explores the American character, as I suggested should have been given in 2002. Nor is it time for him to present his laundry list of programs to address problems at home.

It should be a short speech, full of one purpose: to reassure the American people and the world that calm resolve and cool determination are at the head of the government of the United States and that he will take them as they come.

There are no issues more important in the life of the nation than peace and war. With the exception of the tax cut the president is putting forward to re-stoke the boiler of the economic engine, all the other proposals are ideas that will be altered, attacked and, likely, for the time being abandoned at the onset of the war that will take much of the president's attention.

The speech Tuesday night should be seen as part of what it likely really is: a part of the political life of the nation but not a determiner of outcomes. Whatever the president has to say about Iraq that night will likely be reinforced again and again.

One expects that he, or Secretary of State Colin Powell, will soon visit the United Nations where, as did U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the case for war against Iraq will be made to the members of the Security Council, the Iraqi representatives and the ambassadors from America's all-too-hesitant European allies.

It is one speech in a very long campaign, one that requires a firm hand on the tiller — something Bush has, thus far, generally shown himself to possess since his visit to the United Nations two years ago.

— The Peter Principles is a regular column on politics, culture and the media by Peter Roff, UPI political analyst and 20-year veteran of the Washington scene.

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