- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 31, 2006

President Bush last night promised to tackle several pocketbook issues and strengthen the nation’s global competitiveness in a domestic agenda push aimed, in part, at boosting voter confidence in Republicans heading into the fall midterm elections.

Mr. Bush’s State of the Union vow to develop energy initiatives to offset rising prices, better educate students for high-tech endeavors and ease the burden of medical expenses address three major concerns of Americans.

White House strategists hope assured voters will re-elect a Republican majority in Congress and nudge up Mr. Bush’s approval ratings from the mid-40s, offering the president a chance to be more ambitious in his final two years. A loss of either or both chambers of Congress would hasten his lame-duck status.

“The American economy is pre-eminent, but we cannot afford to be complacent,” said the president, who proposed training 70,000 teachers to lead advanced math and science classes in high school.

“Our great advantage in the world has always been our educated, hardworking, ambitious people — and we are going to keep that edge.”

The narrowly focused domestic agenda that Mr. Bush laid out was in sharp contrast to the ambitious reforms on which he campaigned in 2004, when he sought to overhaul the Social Security system and reform the income-tax code.

Mr. Bush’s Social Security stock investment plan failed to gain widespread interest and never was considered by Congress, and a sweeping tax-simplification plan produced by a blue-ribbon commission has been shelved.

Instead, the president is proposing relatively smaller initiatives that would include giving families tax credits to offset medical costs and expanded health savings accounts. With prices rising for fuel, especially gas, Mr. Bush said, more efficient cars need to be developed, research for alternative sources needs to be accelerated, and more nuclear-power plants need to be built.

“America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world,” Mr. Bush said. “The best way to break this addiction is through technology.”

Mr. Bush’s domestic initiatives are aimed at blunting Democratic attacks charging that he has failed to curb health care costs, reduce dependence on imported oil or help the U.S. compete against emerging global economies such as China and India — issues that resonate with voters.

But few, if any, election analysts think that Democrats can wrest majority control from the Republican Party this fall. Fewer than two dozen House races are truly competitive, and the Democrats would have to win virtually all of them to achieve their takeover goal.

In the Senate, Democrats face the difficult task of winning all six seats in play, which currently are divided between the parties, to gain a majority.

The war on terrorism, which remains Mr. Bush’s strongest job-approval issue in the polls, is still at the forefront of his national security agenda and will be a major political issue against the Democrats this fall.

White House political adviser Karl Rove said last month that the Democrats’ opposition to the USA Patriot Act and their attacks on the government’s warrantless satellite surveillance of telephone conversations with overseas terrorists “is an issue worthy of public debate” and will be at the center of the Republican Party’s campaign offensive.

“In a time of testing, we cannot find security by abandoning our commitments and retreating within our borders,” Mr. Bush said, referring to the war in Iraq that continues to drive down his poll numbers. “If we were to leave these vicious attackers alone, they would not leave us alone. They would simply move the battlefield to our own shores.”

The domestic agenda outlined in Mr. Bush’s address was the result of months of briefings with energy- and automotive-industry officials, health care analysts and government research and development agencies to help fine-tune his proposals.

The White House has come under especially intense lobbying from business, whose bottom line has been hit hard by skyrocketing energy costs.

“The pressures are enormous,” said John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers.

At the outset of the White House’s planning for the address, Mr. Bush made it clear to advisers that his proposals had to be kept within “fiscal constraints” because of a looming budget deficit, administration officials said yesterday.

“In many cases, [the costs in Mr. Bush’s proposals] are relatively modest,” an administration official said yesterday.

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