President Bush Faces State of the Union Challenges

President George W. Bush delivers his State of the Union address.

President George W. Bush delivers his State of the Union address at the Capitol, with Vice President Dick Cheney and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi seated behind him. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

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The Constitution says the president shall "from time to time" give lawmakers information on the state of the union. Almost inevitably, the president says the union is strong — but that it could be stronger if more of his proposals became law.

Toward that end, Mr. Bush proposed a health-care initiative that would provide tax deductions for health-care insurance costs, but also treat employer-paid health benefits as taxable income. The president is also suggesting changes to a range of domestic issues, from energy and immigration to education.

But White House officials say that this isn't the typical State of the Union laundry list, that it is much more thematic. They also say Tuesday night's speech is distinct from the prime-time address on Iraq the president delivered nearly two weeks ago, in which he proposed a troop buildup that has been roundly criticized in Congress.

The 2007 address represented at least one other change for President Bush: Most of the faces looking back at him from the floor belonged to Democrats. His seventh State of the Union address is the first to a Congress in which Democrats control both houses.

The speech came as the president has struggled to win back an increasingly unhappy American public. Several recent public opinion polls show Mr. Bush's popularity to be at an all-time low — including the polls conducted by The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The New York Times, with TV network partners NBC, ABC and CBS, respectively. All of those surveys appeared in the 48 hours prior to the president's speech.

Also appearing Tuesday was a BBC poll of 26,000 people in 25 countries around the world. In it, three-fourths of the respondents said they disapprove of U.S. handling of Iraq, and two-thirds said the American military presence in the Middle East did more harm than good. Overall regard for the United States and its role in the world had also declined over the past two years in 18 of the 25 countries surveyed.

Closer to home, Republicans in both the House and Senate held news conferences Monday to outline their differences with President Bush's proposed plan for a troop buildup in Iraq.

In the face of that uncertainty, White House speechwriters have been looking for the words that would reassure, and perhaps rally, both the Congress and the public.

On NBC's Today Show Tuesday morning, White House spokesman Tony Snow said the speech will offer Congress and the administration a way to counter increasing public skepticism and "regain the trust of the American people."

Certainly, other presidents have stood at the rostrum in the U.S. House chamber at difficult and uncertain times for the country and themselves, delivering the annual report on the nation's condition.

In January 1975, President Gerald Ford offered an unvarnished picture of the U.S. economy, speaking in unusually blunt terms.

"I must say to you that the state of the union is not good. Millions of Americans are out of work. Recession and inflation are eroding the money of millions more. Prices are too high and sales are too slow," said the nation's appointed president.

Then there was President Bill Clinton in January 1996, trying to reassert his own authority in the face of Republicans who had seized control of the Congress a year earlier. President Clinton appropriated a common Republican vision.

"The era of big government is over," he said to great applause.

President George W. Bush spoke to a combined session of a closely divided Congress just a month after taking office in 2001. At that time, he was still something of a question mark to many Americans, given the bitterness following the legal battle that settled the 2000 election. He tried to defuse the tension with humor.

"I thank you for your invitation to speak here tonight. I know Congress had to formally invite me, and it could have been a close vote," Mr. Bush said. When the laughter died down, he added, "So Mr. Vice President, I appreciate you being here to break the tie."

That was six years ago. Now the divisions President Bush faces are far, far deeper, rooted in his own policies, especially the Iraq war. Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, was asked Monday if Iraq is the most important issue facing the United States. He responded, "It's hard to say."

As for the part it will play in the State of the Union address, Snow added, "There will be a significant amount of time devoted not just to Iraq, but to the war on terror and to the way in which we plan to move forward in addressing it."

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