Bush tried to keep focus on domestic issues, but strategy failed

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The scene was familiar, but the script was different as President Bush sought to pursue a classic path for a politician in trouble – change the subject. By the end of the evening, it was clear he had failed.

On a night that epitomized the capital’s transformed political balance, Bush appeared before the new Democratic-controlled Congress for his last State of the Union speech before the race to succeed him takes center stage.

In the days before Tuesday’s speech, the White House sought to focus attention on its prescriptions for such pressing domestic concerns as energy consumption and health care costs. And Bush reversed the previous year’s order to devote his first 20 minutes to those subjects before renewing his warning against withdrawal from Iraq.

But the president’s effort to refocus public attention lasted less time than it took him to give the 50-minute speech.

His own imploring tone as he pleaded with lawmakers to give his revamped Iraq policy “a chance to work” underscored both the primacy and the increasingly desperate state of that struggle.

In the Democratic response, freshman Sen. James Webb’s toughest words charged that Bush produced “predictable – and predicted – disarray” as he “recklessly” started a war by disregarding the warnings of experts.

If the president fails to provide the “new direction” the public has demanded, warned the Vietnam-hero-turned-Virginia-senator, “we will be showing him the way.”

Barely 15 hours later, a majority of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee ensured that Iraq would stay in the headlines by voting for a nonbinding measure condemning Bush’s plan to send more troops. Even most Republicans who opposed the resolution expressed doubts about his plan.

As for the speech, the president is to be commended for urging Democrats to join in seeking “big things for the American people” and presenting imaginative proposals on health care and energy along with his immigration plan.

Yet there was no immediate sign he would be more persuasive with congressional Democrats on domestic issues than with the public on Iraq.

While many Democrats agree with his goals – reducing use of gasoline, increasing availability of health care for all and extending the No Child Left Behind education law – they disagree with his means. That, along with the narrow Democratic majorities, probably ensures an extension of the gridlock that marked the previous, GOP-controlled Congress.

Those divisions were evident Tuesday evening, though Democrats took great care to remain on their best behavior, reacting mostly with silence to proposals they disdained, rather than the mocking cheers of past years.

The divide was most evident when he turned to foreign policy, though he spent eight minutes talking about the broader war on terror and the threat from Iran before he eased into his low-key, somber plea for support on Iraq.

Vice President Dick Cheney and his fellow Republicans rose as they led occasional bursts of applause, most notably when Bush said it was still possible to shape the battle and “turn events to victory.” Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democrats watched in silence.

But even the Republicans sat silently when the president sought to remind the “many” who understand “America must not fail in Iraq” that “the consequences of failure would be grievous and far-reaching.”

It may have been the most profound moment of silence in the soaring House chamber since that night 31 years ago when the late President Gerald Ford unsuccessfully sought one last influx of U.S. funds to save Vietnam.

By night’s end, it was evident that there will be no easy way for this president to shift the subject from the war that brought down the Republican Congress last November and threatens the GOP with further damage in the presidential election year ahead.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him at: cleubsdorf@dallasnews.com.

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