Times Staff Writer

As President Bush prepares to deliver his first State of the Union address to a Democratic-controlled Congress tonight, he may be at the lowest point in his six-year presidency.

Yet on domestic policy, at least, the president may have an opportunity to revive his fortunes on several fronts, including healthcare, immigration and energy policy.

What that would take is a willingness by the president to work for compromises on Capitol Hill, even at the risk of displeasing the GOP’s conservative base. And it would take a Democratic leadership willing to do the same with its base.


In past years, Bush has devoted roughly half his speech to national security and the “war on terror.” But with his approval ratings well below 40% -- largely a result of Americans’ dissatisfaction over the Iraq war -- this year he is expected to give greater emphasis to domestic policy, where he has the most opportunity to find common ground with Democrats.

In 2001, Bush did reach out to opposition lawmakers in the months immediately after his election, securing passage of the No Child Left Behind education law that remains a hallmark of his domestic record. White House officials are suggesting that, despite increasing partisanship since then, Bush is once again open to compromise.

“He understands his obligation ... is to go ahead forthrightly [on] big problems and come up with solutions that not only are going to have political appeal, but they’re also going to be effective in making life better for Americans,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said Monday.

“When you have a Democratic Congress that came in two weeks ago saying, ‘We want to get things done’ -- we’ve got some offers that [are] going to be pretty good for them.”

Both sides are expected to use the speech to send signals to the other -- the president with his words, and the Democrats with their applause, or lack thereof.

Forging compromises and persuading Democrats to join him in the effort will not be easy. Some analysts think it’s too late for Bush to regain the confidence of Democrats -- or of much of the nation.

“People don’t have confidence in him or his trustworthiness, and both of those undermine his ability to bounce back,” said George C. Edwards III, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M; University. “This is the lowest point in his presidency, absolutely. It’s almost the time of desperation.”

Bush’s approval rating averaged 37% over the last year, according to the Gallup Poll -- one of the lowest yearly approval ratings of any president since the organization started collecting such data during the Truman administration. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Monday put Bush’s approval rating at 35%.

Those low ratings, combined with the “thumping” that Republicans took at the polls in November, mean that the president has much less political capital this year, said Thomas E. Mann, who studies White House-congressional relations at the Brookings Institution, a centrist think tank.

“The president is in an exceedingly weak position,” Mann said. “He is not in a position to advance his agenda if it is any way controversial in the country or conflicts with the views of Democrats.”

Bush is scheduled to deliver his speech before a joint session of Congress at 6 p.m. PST


A narrower focus

Some lawmakers are concerned that the shift in political fortunes -- and years of pent-up Democratic frustration with GOP hardball tactics -- could lead to a less-than-decorous atmosphere in the House chamber during the speech.

“I hope we won’t act like children,” said Senate Assistant Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). “The Democrats in the House, if they’re not appropriately considerate of the president of the United States, then that will agitate those of us on our side, and then we’ll respond in kind, and then the American people will turn us off.”

Democrats, however strongly they are feeling their oats at the moment, say they do not intend to be disruptive.

“We’ve always been respectful of the president, and I would assume that would continue,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). “This is really his night to give us his view, and I think people generally make their views known through applause and non-applause.”

White House aides said that instead of the traditional laundry list of subjects -- in which the president gives at least a brief plug for the favored programs of every Cabinet department -- Bush plans to focus on a few key issues.

“I just think some of the old State of the Union formulas have kind of run their course,” Snow said.

This year, the speech comes just 10 days after the president delivered a prime-time address to the nation on the subject of national security, and aides say he does not intend to repeat himself. For instance, at a time of increasing tension between the Bush administration and Iran, foreign governments are likely to listen carefully to what the president says about that country and about Syria, another neighbor of Iraq.

Aside from foreign policy, aides say, Bush will concentrate his remarks on four domestic policy areas: energy, healthcare, immigration and education.

On healthcare, Bush is expected to talk in more depth about an idea he floated over the weekend: that the tax code should put a limit on how much of workers’ health insurance premiums are tax deductible. The deduction cap would affect more generous healthcare plans, particularly those provided to highly paid employees and some union members.

The administration argues that while some Americans would have to pay taxes on some of their employer-provided insurance, that would make it easier for uninsured workers and the self-employed to buy coverage on the open market. The idea is opposed by the administration’s major business allies, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Bush is also expected to promote health savings accounts -- as he has for years -- which let workers avoid taxes on dollars they set aside to pay medical expenses.

Democrats have complained that health savings accounts primarily benefit upper-income workers, but they might be open to an expansion of the existing program if it were combined with other steps they favor.

On energy, Bush will mention global warming along with the country’s “addiction” to foreign oil -- a major theme of last year’s address -- and propose developing new technologies as the way to combat them.

“Energy and environmental policy are linked up,” Snow said. “The way you do it is you encourage innovation.... Carrots work better than sticks.”

In particular, Bush is expected to renew his support for a $2-billion program to spur development of alternative fuels and other technologies designed to reduce pollution from fossil fuels.

Many Democrats support development of new, environmentally friendly energy technology, though they differ with Bush on specifics. Environmental groups are demanding stronger action on global warming.

“Small steps at this point will not address the problem very significantly and we cannot accept them,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.


Immigration divides GOP

On immigration, aides say Bush will reiterate his support for “comprehensive” immigration overhaul, but it remains to be seen whether he will specify what that means.

In the last two years, Bush has used his annual address to Congress to sketch out core elements -- better border security, improved enforcement at workplaces and a guest-worker program for temporary workers. But so far he has not taken a firm position on the problem at the heart of the immigration debate: the fate of the 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country.

That issue has divided the GOP, with House Republicans adopting a hard-line stance that may have contributed to GOP losses in November.

That’s why immigration legislation has a better chance of passing with Congress in Democratic hands, and lawmakers are preparing to broach the issue again.

On education, aides say the president intends to press for the reauthorization of his signature No Child Left Behind Act, which faces expiration if not renewed this year.

Congressional sources say that the bill will probably undergo some revision but that the Democrats and Republicans who signed on to it five years ago remain committed to its core principles: more testing of students and accountability standards for schools in an effort to improve achievement levels of disadvantaged students.

Beyond that, there is little consensus on where Bush could take his education agenda. Last year he expressed support for extending No Child Left Behind to secondary schools, but Democrats and Republicans say they want to work out the kinks at the elementary-school level before applying the idea to high schools.

In the end, it may not be proposals that determine the success or failure of the showcase address. Instead, it may simply be whether Bush avoids losing additional ground with the public and Congress.

“At six years, people think they know him,” presidential historian Edwards said. “The idea that there is some magic phrasing or some magic policy that will give him a big boost and people will regain confidence in him -- it’s not going to happen.”


Times staff writers Doyle McManus, Richard Simon, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Nicole Gaouette and James Gerstenzang contributed to this report.


State of the Union

President Bush will give his State of the Union address before Congress at 6 p.m. It will be carried live on major broadcast and cable news networks.