What Bush Needs to Say in His State of the Union President George Bush delivers his State of the Union address tonight, his first before a Democrat-controlled Congress. Michael Gerson, President Bush's former chief speech writer, talks about what the president should say Tuesday night.

What Bush Needs to Say in His State of the Union

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


And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Coming up, a day to remember for 10-year-old Abigail Breslin. She's the kid in the movie "Little Miss Sunshine," and this morning she was nominated for an Oscar. We'll talk with her.

CHADWICK: First, when President Bush stands in the House chamber tonight and delivers the State of the Union Address, this will be his first without an important partner. Michael Gerson was the president's chief speechwriter from 2001 until last year, including last year's State of the Union speech. Here's something from that.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: To confront the great issues before us, we must act in a spirit of goodwill and respect for one another. And I will do my part. Tonight, the State of our Union is strong, and together we will make it stronger.

(Soundbite of applause)

CHADWICK: Michael Gerson worked on most of the president's major speeches of the last six years, including both inaugural addresses and the joint address to Congress after the 9/11 attacks. Michael Gerson joins us from NPR's studios in Washington. Welcome to DAY TO DAY.

Mr. MICHAEL GERSON (Former Speechwriter): Good to be with you.

CHADWICK: Here's a quote from the Washington Post, "Only twice in the past six decades has a president delivered his annual speech to the nation in a weaker condition in the polls. Harry Truman in the midst of the Korean War in 1952. Richard Nixon in the throes of the Watergate in 1974."

What does the president do in this political moment?

Mr. GERSON: Well, I think there is some drama in this moment, the drama of a new Democratic Congress, the drama of an unpopular war in Iraq. But for a good speechwriter, drama isn't necessarily a bad thing. You try to use that moment and use the drama to take advantage of some opportunities. I think the president has an opportunity to be gracious to the new Congress, which the American people would really appreciate.

I think he has an opportunity on a few issues - a few narrow issues - but important issues, like energy and immigration, to make some real progress with this Congress. That in some ways is more favorable than the previous one. And then I think on Iraq, he needs to make a strong case for patience to implement a new policy and, you know, see what happens.

CHADWICK: But already this week an ally of his, a very significant Republican, Senator John Warner, former chair of the Armed Services Committee, comes out and says I don't think the president is right with this idea for more American troops to Iraq. Public opinion polls show the country by very strong margins is against him on this. I mean what does he say on this topic? Or should he just try to talk about something else?

Mr. GERSON: No. I think he has to address the topic directly and I think the second half of the speech will be mainly focused on Iraq. And he has to make the case that the stakes are high for the country, that a failed or terrorist regime in Iraq would be a strategic disaster. And that he's got a real plan that's going to be implemented by General Petraeus that the experts believe can work.

The speech tonight is very important, but I think the testimony before Congress, before the Senate today by General Petraeus, who's going to be in charge over there, was just as important in a certain way. And he pushed back hard against the resolution of disapproval. He pushed hard for the additional troops. And I think that puts senators like Warner and Collins and others in a very difficult position of opposing a respected general who is asking for more troops and thinks it'll work.

CHADWICK: Is this Mr. Bush's most difficult moment?

Mr. GERSON: Well, no, I've lived through a few of his difficult moments. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, if the president had looked shaky or hesitant or afraid, it would have been very bad for the country.

CHADWICK: But that was a moment when the country would rally to a leader. And this is a moment when they're rallying against him, if you read the political polls.

Mr. GERSON: I think there's some truth to that. There are limits to what words can accomplish in the circumstance. The speech tonight in that way is important, but not decisive. Ultimately, the outcome is going to be decided by events on the ground in the six or nine months. So in this case, the reality will matter more than the rhetoric.

CHADWICK: I can't imagine that the White House did not ask you to at least look at the speech, maybe ask you for a phrase or some idea.

Mr. GERSON: Well, you should have been more imaginative, because they didn't. And I'm very much outside government now, and the team there is the team that I've put in place, people that I trust and know, headed by Bill McGurn, who's the new head of speechwriting, are very, very skilled.

CHADWICK: Michael Gerson, until last year chief speechwriter for President Bush, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a contributor to Newsweek magazine. Michael Gerson, thank you.

Mr. GERSON: Thank you.

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