Recurring Themes in the State of the Union

From year to year, President Bush's State of the Union address has covered familiar territory: Iraq, education, health care and immigration. This year, we can expect more of the same story.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

This is a ritual day in Washington. The constitution says the president shall, from time to time, give lawmakers information on the state of the Union. These days, the president delivers that information in person. And almost inevitably, the president says the Union is strong - though it could be stronger, he will say, if more of his proposals became law.

When a president has done as many of these addresses as George W. Bush, you can learn something from what changes and what does not, year to year. This year, one big difference is the increased number of Democrats in the congressional audience. We'll begin our coverage with NPR's David Greene, who's been listening to the president's past State of the Union speeches.

DAVID GREENE: When the president arrives On Capitol Hill for his address in 2001, the country was divided after the bitter recount that put Mr. Bush in office. The president played up how he had been inviting Democrats into the White House to sit down and chat.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We're off to a good start. I will continue to meet with you and ask for your input. You have been kind and candid. And I thank you for making a new president feel welcome.

(Soundbite of applause)

GREENE: And Democrats did seem to welcome some of Mr. Bush's ideas. Many were priorities Democrats would have put forward themselves.

President BUSH: Excellent schools, quality health care, a secure retirement, a cleaner environment, a stronger defense. These are all important needs and we fund them. The highest percentage increase on our budget should go to our children's education.

GREENE: The education issue really seemed to bring the parties together. In fact, the liberal lion from Massachusetts, Senator Edward Kennedy, was at the time working closely with the president on a new education law. By the end of 2001, the September 11th attacks had completely changed the nation's focus. And that was the backdrop for Mr. Bush's 2002 address.

President BUSH: As we gather tonight, our nation is at war, our economy is in recession, and a civilized world faces unprecedented dangers. Yet, the state of our union has never been stronger.

(Soundbite of applause)

GREENE: To defend the nation, Mr. Bush made fighting terrorism his top priority. The Congress and the country rallied around him.

President BUSH: Terrorists who once occupied Afghanistan now occupy cells at Guantanamo Bay.

GREENE: But if Afghanistan was the target at that time, the president made clear he thought danger's elsewhere.

President BUSH: The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax, and nerve gas, and nuclear weapons for over a decade.

GREENE: In the House chamber that night, five years ago, it's hard to imagine anyone knew what was to come. A war in Iraq that would divide the country again, eroding the president's popularity. As that war has raged, the president has tried, in his State of the Union addresses, to raise the profile of other issues.

In 2004, he called for a new immigration law with a guest worker plan, giving illegal immigrants a crack at working status.

President BUSH: My temporary worker program will preserve the citizenship path for those who respect the law.

GREENE: He tried again in 2005.

President BUSH: It is time for an immigration policy that permits temporary guest workers to fill jobs Americans will not take.

GREENE: And he tried again last year.

President BUSH: And we must have a rational, humane guest worker program that rejects amnesty, allows…

GREENE: The president has still not gotten his guest worker program. He's expected to make yet another pitch tonight, while also talking about energy and education. And he plans to lay out a bold new proposal for how to expand health coverage to more uninsured Americans. The point, the White House says, is for Mr. Bush to talk about Iraq while shifting some focus to other issues.

But listen to these numbers. In a new Wall Street Journal poll, only 22 percent of Americans say they want the president to set the nation's policy. Fifty-seven percent say they prefer that Congress do the job. Mr. Bush insists he'll have a productive last two years - he's sprinting to the finish, as he puts it. But if that's true, he'll have to work to regain the nation's trust. Some of that work comes tonight.

David Greene, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: Now many NPR listeners can hear coverage of the speech tonight. And tomorrow, on the show, and at npr.org, we'll provide analysis of key issues on the State of the Union Speech.

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