Monday, January 22, 2007

President Bush will reach out to Democrats in tonight’s State of the Union address, pursuing common ground with his political adversaries on issues such as immigration, education and energy policy.

But viewers tuning in at 9 p.m. will see a different picture: Just over his shoulder on the television screen will be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, leader of the Democrats, who likely won’t applaud the president’s initiatives.

And some Republicans in the chamber may also sit on their hands to show displeasure as Mr. Bush seeks to draw support from a Democratic-led Congress for the first time in his presidency.

Mr. Bush plans a broad and thematic speech that will placate Republicans while seeking a central ground with Democrats, who along with a majority of Americans oppose Mr. Bush’s strategy to deploy another 21,000 U.S. troops to Iraq.

“The president will need to focus on domestic policy issues that are widely recognized to be important and on which he can see some possibility of working with the new Democratic majority,” said Cal Jillson, professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

The White House has made clear the speech will focus on five issues — the global war on terrorism, health care, education, immigration and energy — instead of a laundry list of policy initiatives used in previous addresses.

Mr. Bush, as he did nearly two weeks ago in a prime-time address to the nation, will lay out his case for his new Iraq strategy, but he’ll move quickly to topics that polls show Americans care most about, especially health care and education.

“Americans want a [health care] system that’s going to be more patient-friendly and that’s going to meet their needs,” White House press secretary Tony Snow said yesterday. “The president will talk about that. Education, always important … Immigration has been an issue of considerable concern within this country.”

“In other words, the president is going to address the areas that are foremost concern for Americans,” Mr. Snow said. “When you have a Democratic Congress that came in two weeks ago saying, we want to get things done, we’ve got some offers that they’re going to be pretty good for them.”

Democrats, though, appear ready to oppose Mr. Bush at every turn. On Saturday, shortly after Mr. Bush proposed expanding health care coverage by putting incentives into the tax code for individuals to buy their own, Democratic leaders immediately opposed the plan.

Republican strategist Charlie Black, who works closely with the president, said Mr. Bush will not bend over backwards to win Democratic support. While he will seek to lay out an achievable bipartisan plan, “he will demonstrate that he is not a lame duck, that he is willing to tackle big issues.”

Still, compounding the president’s problems is the 2008 campaign for his job has already begun, and Democrats could well spend the next two years opposing Mr. Bush’s plans.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, said over the weekend as she announced her presidential candidacy that she “will spend [the next] two years doing everything in my power to limit the damage George W. Bush can do.”

In his speech tonight, Mr. Bush will give Democrats that opportunity with immigration, which many Americans see as the nation’s No. 1 issue. He will repeat his call from last year for comprehensive immigration reform. While the Republican-controlled Congress would not approve the president’s proposal to create a guest-worker program and put more than 10 million illegal aliens on a path to citizenship, Democrats just might.

Mr. Bush also will seek to renew his bipartisan friendship with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, who he teamed with to win overwhelming approval in Congress for the No Child Left Behind Act.

The act comes up for renewal this year, and some Republicans fear the president may cut a deal with majority Democrats, offering more money if Democrats agree to include more requirements for the high school level.

Mr. Kennedy, chairman of the Senate education panel, has said the White House failed to fight to adequately fund the massive federal program.

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