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Trying to regain footing in baby steps

Times Staff Writer

Can this presidency be saved?

That’s the question that loomed Tuesday as President Bush gave his State of the Union speech in the most inhospitable climate he has ever faced for his annual address to Congress.

In proposing a short list of initiatives on healthcare, immigration and energy, Bush gave more attention than he has in past speeches to domestic issues. That agenda was potentially more appealing to Democrats -- or at least harder for them to dismiss out of hand -- than his ill-fated plan to overhaul Social Security, which was to be the crown jewel of his second term.

But Bush’s plans may be too modest to accomplish the broader challenge facing him: how to rescue the last quarter of his presidency from irrelevance and patch his tattered legacy. Bush is trying to regain his footing while Iraq is littered with carnage, Democrats are calling the shots on Capitol Hill, senior members of his own party are openly questioning his Iraq policy, and a vast majority of the public is disenchanted with his leadership.

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“This represents the end of the Bush era,” said Michael Tanner, a policy analyst for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. “This speech shows that outside Iraq, he is increasingly irrelevant.”

In the speech, Bush tried to remain gracious and optimistic about finding common ground with Democrats. “Like many before us, we can work through our differences and achieve big things for the American people,” he told the joint session of Congress.

The moment is reminiscent of the position Bill Clinton was in after Republicans won control of Congress in 1994. Clinton seemed so marginalized that he felt obliged to assert at a news conference that he was still relevant.

But Clinton went on to work with the GOP-controlled Congress and rack up notable accomplishments, including a balanced-budget plan, a welfare overhaul, a federal minimum-wage increase and expansion of health insurance coverage.

Burdened by an unpopular war, Bush is not aiming as high on the domestic front. And he is following, more than leading, in a political environment where the agenda is increasingly being set by others: the Democratic leaders in Congress, the nation’s governors and the crowd of politicians campaigning for president.

Bush is chiming in on a burgeoning national debate about how to expand health insurance coverage. Republican governors -- Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Mitt Romney, late of Massachusetts -- have broken the partisan mold and crafted ambitious healthcare plans. Business and labor groups are making odd-bedfellow alliances to promote expanded coverage. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), on the first day of her presidential campaign, offered a plan to broaden health coverage.

Bush’s contribution is a proposal that has already been declared dead-on-arrival on Capitol Hill because it could hurt many who are now insured. He is proposing a change in the tax system to cap deductions for employer-provided health insurance and provide new tax breaks for people who buy their own insurance. It is a plan that is in keeping with Bush’s aversion to government mandates.

“In all we do, we must remember that the best healthcare decisions are made not by government and insurance companies but by patients and their doctors,” he said.

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But that tax change would increase the number of people insured by only about 5 million, when nearly 47 million are uninsured. The plan is opposed by labor unions, and many business leaders are not enthusiastic about it. It would face formidable obstacles even if Bush had introduced it at the height of his presidency.

Bush also proposed giving states more leeway to use Medicaid funds to devise their own plans to expand health insurance coverage. But that initiative amounts only to redeploying money, not increasing the federal commitment, and it is unclear how many of the uninsured would be covered.

On energy, Bush seems on the defensive against Democrats who are trying to bring a new sense of urgency to the effort to combat global warming. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has appointed a special committee to study the issue. Former Vice President Al Gore received an Oscar nomination for his documentary on global warming. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leading presidential candidate, is making it a signature issue.

Bush proposed tackling the issue by aiming to cut gasoline consumption by 20% in 10 years, mostly by promoting the use of alternative fuels. But he did not go as far as most Democrats think is needed to reduce global warming.

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And Democrats remained skeptical about his commitment. “It’s not just about what he says. It’s about what he does,” Pelosi said. “In the past ... he has talked the talk on climate change. But he hasn’t walked the walk.”

Two other issues that Bush promoted are old standbys: renewal of his landmark education law, No Child Left Behind, and an overhaul of immigration law that would allow some foreigners to enter the country as temporary workers.

Even the parts of the speech that the White House touted as groundbreaking and bold were echoes of past speeches. Last year’s State of the Union included plans to end the country’s “addiction to oil.” Bush’s 2006 speech also had spotlighted another tax-break approach to improving medical coverage -- through tax-advantaged health savings accounts. Neither of those issues advanced even in a Congress controlled by Bush’s own party.

Even though he addressed the nation on Iraq less than two weeks ago, Bush spent half of Tuesday’s speech on the subject, urging people to see the Iraq war as part of the broader battle against terrorism. He acknowledged that the situation in Iraq deteriorated badly in 2006, but he urged Congress to give his strategy of increasing troop levels a chance to work.

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“On this day, at this hour, it is still within our power to shape the outcome of this battle,” he said.

Joe Lockhart, a former Clinton White House aide and co-founder of the political website Hotsoup.com, said Bush might have missed an opportunity to put Democrats on the defensive with a bolder agenda on issues like global warming, healthcare and immigration.

“He offered only piecemeal approaches to dealing with these issues,” Lockhart said. “Add to that no flexibility on Iraq, and the speech is destined to be forgotten almost as soon as it’s completed.”

If Bush and the Democrats do not find a way to forge bipartisan deals, election day 2006 will turn out to have been the beginning of the end of his presidency. Some allies say the best thing he could do in the next two years would be to recognize the limits of his legislative power and focus more on framing the debate for 2008.

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“There’s nothing good or useful that can be passed out of this Congress in the next two years,” said Grover Norquist, a Bush ally and president of Americans for Tax Reform. “It’s not as if he can bend Congress to his will. He can veto things; he can stop things; he can introduce ideas and repeat ideas. That is his power.”

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janet.hook@latimes.com


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