President’s clout not what it used to be

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WASHINGTON – White House political aides always try to lower expectations for a State of the Union address. That won’t be hard this year.

As President Bush prepares to deliver his seventh State of the Union on Tuesday night, he finds himself at the low ebb of his steadily waning clout.

His political capital is dangerously depleted. Congress is controlled by the Democrats, emboldened to reverse his domestic initiatives and challenge him at every turn. Republicans already jittery about the 2008 elections are distancing themselves from him and his policies. His personal popularity and job approval ratings have been shredded. “It’s not a pretty political picture,” one of Bush’s closest confidants acknowledged last week, “and we all know it, including him.”

The task facing Bush is even more daunting because aides know a significant portion of his speech must reinforce the single issue that has hastened his political demise: the war in Iraq.

“The policy is right, but the politics are lousy,” a senior Bush adviser forthrightly told the New York Daily News. “People are sick of the war. They don’t want to hear about it anymore.”

Bush’s political aides recognize that “the president’s approval and popularity will be driven by Iraq forever,” as one of them glumly put it.

Yet Bush will attempt to rally public support for several major domestic items. “He wants to try to convince the public he still wants to accomplish big things, and he’s sincere about working with the Democrats to make them happen,” one adviser said.

White House spokesman Tony Snow claimed the speech won’t detail the traditional “laundry list” of agenda items. “I just think some of the old State of the Union formulas have kind of run their course,” Snow said. Nonetheless, aside from reinforcing Bush’s commitment to Iraq and the war on terror, the speech will largely feature a rehash of Bush’s oldies-but-goodies wish list.

Bush plans to revive his immigration reform package, including the guest worker program that would grant citizenship to some illegal aliens. He’ll call for education and energy reforms again, and renew his previously failed bid to overhaul Social Security. He’s also considering tax credits to help curb global warming, an environmental phenomenon he has suggested in the past has been overblown.

Bush is described by friends as realistic about his diminished clout but doggedly resolute. “As a general matter,” said a top Republican source who talks with the White House regularly, “everyone’s pretty much down in the dumps over there, but trying to take the high ground and begin a serious dialogue with the Democrats to get something accomplished.”

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