Politics with Ron Elving: Bush Speech Preview

President Bush will deliver his fifth state of the union address Tuesday. Alex Chadwick talks with NPR senior Washington, D.C., editor Ron Elving about what the nation and the world can expect from the president's speech.

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

In Washington, this is state of the union week. All the members of Congress meet in joint session tomorrow night, the Supreme Court shows up, military leaders, diplomats, to listen to President Bush talk about what he wants to do this year. And it is an election year, of course, so the speech should be both about policy and politics.

Joining us is NPR's senior Washington editor, Ron Elving.

You'll be listening tomorrow night, Ron. What do you expect to hear?

Mr. RON ELVING reporting:

Alex, you know how these speeches work; there's an item or two for every department in the president's cabinet: education, veterans, energy, agriculture. Lots of applause lines, Republicans standing and cheering, Democrats sitting and looking bored.

On the topics side, certain things are going to be mandatory. He has to talk about the war on terror. And under that heading, he will choose to include Iraq, and also the issues of surveillance in the United States.

CHADWICK: Mm-hmm.

ELVING: He will include here, probably very soon thereafter, the wider concerns of the Middle East, including Iran's nuclear program, the stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. The big emphasis here will be on a grim picture, big threats.

Whereas, when we get to the home front, the president will talk about the economy, growth in jobs, energy prices. Some people might think of those as problems, but the president will see all those things as getting better, and there'll be blue skies up ahead in his speech.

CHADWICK: Okay, how about healthcare?

ELVING: The president has given us to understand that he's going to have some new programs to propos to help Americans buy healthcare, and health insurance. But are going to primarily tax-side and market-oriented programs. In other words, allowing people to save more of their pre-tax income to use for medical accounts, medical costs, and also, trying to reduce some healthcare costs directly through comparison-shopping, and things of that nature.

We're not going to hear about any big, new government-supported program to either provide or pay for healthcare.

CHADWICK: So, we're not. This is on the list of things we're not, what else is on the list of things we are definitely not going to hear about, Ron?

ELVING: Well, the president may mention a number of things, but move quickly past them, so as to prioritize others. For example, he's got to mention Hurricane Katrina and the devastating of the Gulf Coast. But don't expect him dwell on that. He won't be talking about any of the environmental implications of that disaster. He certainly won't be talking about global warming.

CHADWICK: No? Well, how about education?

ELVING: Probably won't be a big item. He may be calling for training more science teachers because of recent studies that show the U.S. lagging international competitors in this field. But he's not going to be talking about resistance in the states in his standards-based testing program, which was the hallmark of his education program in the first term...

CHADWICK: Yes, I recall.

ELVING: ...and talking about past prioritize. Don't expect to hear much about revamping the tax code or Social Security, the big theme from last year's State of the Union Address speech. Although, he may remind Congress that he still wants to revise those things. He doesn't want to remind people too much of what happened to those ideas last year.

CHADWICK: How about all the talk in Washington about scandals coming out of there? The lobbying scandals, Jack Abramoff?

ELVING: Maybe a passing reference, not much more than that. The president wants to shrug this off as a few bad apples problem effecting Congress, not him. I don't think he'll mention Jack Abramoff or Tom DeLay, or any of the other hot names in the scandal.

CHADWICK: The Patriot Act, domestic spying; you said earlier that he might talk about the surveillance program, as he calls it.

ELVING: Definitely, we'll bring this up. He'll talk about the Patriot Act. There are provisions of it soon to expire. He wants Congress to renew them, but he's not going to offer to negotiate with the Senate, as the Senate has asked. He'll talk about what he calls the terrorist surveillance program, if only to get the Democrats to sit down while the Republicans stand up and cheer the idea of going after and spying on people who might be connected to al-Qaeda.

CHADWICK: He will be able to say hello there to a new Supreme Court justice. At least, it looks that way at this point.

ELVING: Yes. All indications are the Senate will have approved Sam Alito to join the Court by tomorrow night, and he should be there in his black robe.

CHADWICK: Ron, thank you.

NPR's Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving. You can read his column, Watching Washington, on our website, npr.org.

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