WASHINGTON—President Bush goes before the American people tonight to report that the nation is strong, confident and ready.
His challenge will be to keep it that way as he fights what he calls a "two-front war" against terrorism and economic stagnation.
"This speech is going to be a little harder for him. He's at a different level, and will be judged at a different level," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-4th District.
In his State of the Union speech, the president will address a joint session of Congress at 9:01 tonight as arguably the most popular president in modern American history. No president, since the advent of modern polling in the 1930s, has maintained such high job approval ratings for so long. Prior to Sept. 11, his Gallup poll approval rating averaged 57 percent; since then, it's averaged 87 percent.
And in that, he risks becoming a victim of his own soaring expectations. While most Americans are ready to support his war effort, politicians know that no one stays in that lofty range forever, and they believe the very pillars of his popularity could crumble quickly should the war on terrorism or the economy suddenly take ugly turns.
Tonight, Bush is expected to stress, as he did in his Saturday radio address, that his priorities all "reflect a single, overarching commitment: to enhance the security of America and its people."
The war has gone better than even administration officials suspected. In Bush's last address to Congress, on Sept. 20, he repeatedly urged patience, and he is expected to do the same tonight.
"We're still under attack," the president told the nation's mayors last week when they gathered in Washington "They still want to come after us. These are evil people that are relentless in their desire to hurt those who love freedom."
While there are no signs the public is tiring of the war, there are some suggestions its patience is not unlimited.
A Pew Research Center survey released last week found that there are strong majorities for taking action against Iraq, Somalia and any other state that may be harboring terrorists, but there is less support for unilateral action. If the American casualty count were to rise, support for U.S. military action would likely drop.
"It may be that the public is perfectly willing to use military force in a variety of places as long as the operations are relatively painless both diplomatically and militarily," said Kenneth M. Pollack, deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Bush is expected to ratchet up the emotional level as high as he can tonight, appealing not only to America's patriotism, but showcasing heroes of the war. He met Monday with Afghanistan interim leader Hamid Karzai, for instance, and is expected to have Karzai and other familiar post-Sept. 11 figures watching from the congressional gallery as he speaks.
His biggest sales job, though, will involve the second risk to his popularity: the economy.
Bush starts with enormous goodwill, despite the nation's deepest recession in 20 years. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., who will give tonight's Democratic response to the president, cited two reasons Bush is being spared the venom that opponents usually inject into the economic debate.
One, said Gephardt, is that "people feel it doesn't matter what kind of economic stimulus you pass or don't pass; people want to feel safe." The other is that Bush has built a reputation as a consensus-builder, and people are tired of partisan bickering.
The president has already outlined broad areas of his $2.1 trillion fiscal 2003 budget. It is likely to have a projected deficit of $106 billion, the highest number in years. He will seek an additional $48 billion for the military, and probably double the budget for homeland security.
"I am very pleased about the president's preliminary announcement," said Rep. John B. Larson, D-1st District, one of the chief sponsors of legislation to provide more aid to local governments. But, he added, "I have deep concerns about where this funding will come from in the president's budget request."
Many Democrats would like to see Bush's tax cut rolled back, or at least targeted to the less wealthy.
"Governors around the country all have to adjust because of the recession. We should have to adjust as well," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn.
Bush, though, is expected to cite last year's massive tax cut as one of the engines of recovery, not a hindrance.
He is not likely tonight to cite one issue that could cause him political problems later this year, a year when control of Congress is up for grabs in November. And that issue is the collapse of Houston-based Enron Corp. Democrats would love to embarrass administration officials with ties to the firm.
At the moment, though, whether it's economics or Enron, Democrats will probably make their case gently. After all, approval ratings for members of Congress are up since Sept. 11, and part of the reason is that congressional leaders and Bush have been meeting regularly. And they were able to agree on major bills affecting airline security, homeland security and education.
"The public knows we have differences," Gephardt said, "but they want us to all sit around the table and work it out."