Bush Faces Tougher Audience in This Year's Address

President Bush will give the State of the Union address Tuesday. This year, Bush is facing a more dire situation in Iraq, as well as a Congress controlled by Democrats. His new health-care proposal has already run into opposition.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Mr. TONY SNOW (White House Spokesman): A lot of times these speeches, they just go on and on, and you lose people.

ELLIOTT: That's White House spokesman Tony Snow talking about the State of the Union address. President Bush is putting the finishing touches on this year's address, which he'll deliver Tuesday. Snow told reporters this past week that the president will try something different this year.

Mr. SNOW: It's better to spend some time focusing on big issues so that people do get a sense of your engagement with them, and there will be opportunities to pick up other topics in much greater detail later on.

ELLIOTT: Tony Snow promised the president will address the war on terror, energy, immigration and health care. Those all happen to be issues he talked about in last year's State of the Union.

NPR's White House correspondent David Greene was there last year and will be there again this year.

David, hi. Thanks for being with us.

DAVID GREENE: Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Take us back to January, 2006 and how the Iraq war figured into the president's State of the Union.

GREENE: It's amazing to look back a year ago. It was a very different time. The situation in Iraq wasn't good, but there was a real feeling of optimism, I think, in the White House. The president was thinking he might even be able to bring some troops home during the course of the year.

Here's a little bit of George W. Bush a year ago.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: As we make progress on the ground and Iraqi forces increasingly take the lead, we should be able to further decrease our troop levels. But those decisions will be made by our military commanders, not by politicians in Washington D.C.

(Soundbite of applause)

ELLIOTT: Obviously, David, it's a completely different situation this year, the president now talking about sending more troops to Iraq. And just this weekend, U.S. forces have suffered one of their highest casualty tolls since the invasion began.

GREENE: That's right. And a lot more doubt about whether this war can actually ever be won. The president is going to talk a little bit about Iraq in the State of the Union and about his plan for more troops, but what we're hearing from the White House is, you know, that's such a divisive issue. He's going to try and turn the subject a bit, move the speech to some issues where he can look for some common ground with Democrats.

ELLIOTT: Now, one of those issues on the domestic side is going to be health care. In fact, the president yesterday in his radio address previewed a health care initiative. Let's listen.

President BUSH: One of the most promising ways to make private health insurance more affordable is by reforming the federal tax code. Today the tax code unfairly penalizes people who do not get health insurance through their job.

ELLIOTT: David, what exactly does the president have in mind here and what are the prospects of him getting something like this through the Democratic-controlled Congress?

GREENE: Debbie, I've got to warn you, you're going to hear a lot of details and numbers from the White House in coming days, so let me try to boil it down for you briefly.

Health insurance provided by employers has always been tax-free. Now, under the president's plan, he's going to announce people with more expensive plans that cost more than $15,000 for a family and $15,000 in health insurance, they'll have to start paying some taxes on their health coverage.

At the same time, people who get their insurance on their own outside of the workplace are now going to be able to take a pretty significant deduction on their taxes. But already we've heard complaints from Democrats, saying this is essentially a tax increase on many middle class families who have some of those more expensive health care plans and are now going to have to pay a tax. So the president, trying to use this issue that is dear to Democrats, but no guarantee it's going to work.

ELLIOTT: Now, Mr. Bush seems to have accommodated the Democrats on another issue, warrantless wire tapping of terrorism suspects. That was a big issue in last year's State of the Union as well.

GREENE: Yeah, Debbie, I don't think there's another issue you can find that so clearly shows how far we've come politically from one State of the Union to another. Last year, an election year, the president talked tough about being able to go after suspected terrorists and doing this wire tapping without getting a warrant from a court. I think it was a way to try and bait Democrats, get them on the record as being against an anti-terrorism measure.

Now with the election, the Republicans lose, and a big reversal. The White House now says that there will be court supervision of this wiretapping of suspected terrorists. So it seems like an admission that the White House has to work with Democrats.

Another sign of that: the president actually just agreed to go speak to House Democrats at a House Democratic retreat at the beginning of next month. So a real reach out effort by the White House to at least show the president willing to work with the other party.

ELLIOTT: Finally, since we have you with us, David, we ran across an interesting statistic in Harper's Index published by Harper's magazine. I'm going to read to you. The average number of times that President Bush has used the pronoun I in each of his State of the Union addresses: 36. The average number of times that President Clinton did in his State of the Unions: 103.

What do you make of that?

GREENE: You know, one thing I'll say is President Bush speaks a lot more slowly than Bill Clinton. But perhaps President Clinton was, you know, facing a Republican Congress and wanted to use I more than we. So now we have President Bush facing his first Democratic-controlled Congress. We'll be looking to see how many times he uses I. Maybe it will be more often. Now you're going to have me obsessed, listening for that word every second in that speech Tuesday.

ELLIOTT: NPR White House correspondent David Greene, thank you.

GREENE: Thank you, Debbie.

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