Potential war, terrorism and a sluggish economy amount to a triple political threat for President Bush, but Democrats plan to use it to their advantage in an effort to take the steam out of the president's State of the Union address on Tuesday.
At a news conference amounting to a pre-emptive strike against the president's record and his agenda, the nation's two top Democrats Monday accused the president of a "credibility gap" and called the State of the Union "anxious."
"The threat of war, terrorism and recession are combining to make Americans less sure about their future and less certain about the course our nation is taking," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who appeared with her counterpart Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
Daschle expressed doubt that Americans could bank on the president's pledges, though he credited him with making popular promises.
"We don't need a crystal ball to predict that he'll use a lot of words like 'bold' and 'strong' and 'good.' President Bush says a lot of the right things, and he says them well," Daschle said.
"But a speech doesn't equal a solution and a sound bite is not substitute for strategy. The real test of the State of the Union is not how strong the president's words are or how loud the applause is or how high his approval ratings jump after the speech. The real test of the president's words is whether they lead to action and whether that action leads to progress. So far, the president's been saying all the right things, but doing very few of them," he added.
With the president's popularity slipping in recent polls, the speech — and reaction to it — may prove a crucial moment for the Bush administration and the president's prospects for re-election.
Traditionally, a president's popularity goes up after a State of the Union speech and Democrats are trying to raise the level of expectation in an effort to blunt the boost the president regularly receives.
The White House knows it is under pressure, even from Republicans, for the president to deliver a strong and convincing case against Iraq. They also know that Bush has to provide people encouragement that the economy is on an upswing and they will benefit from his stimulus plans.
Aides say the president will focus mostly on domestic issues.
"Most of the State of the Union will not be about Iraq. Most of the State of the Union will be about improving America's economy and providing greater access to health care for millions of Americans, including senior citizens," said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.
With that foresight, Democrats blasted just about every aspect of the Bush agenda, particularly the $674 billion economic stimulus package and the staggering economy.
They aren't asking the now-famous question posed by Ronald Reagan about whether people are better off now than years ago, but they are willing to provide their answer to it: no. It's been a frequent refrain since the November election, in which the Democrats' economic message was muddled.
"Since President Bush took office two years ago, a total of 2.3 million private-sector jobs have been lost — the worst record of job creation for any president since the end of World War II," Pelosi said.
Democrats plan to grind home those numbers after the address as well, when the Democratic response is delivered by Washington Gov. Gary Locke, chairman of the Governors Association.
Locke's state is experiencing particularly high unemployment and a budget crisis, and he plans to use his 12-minute rebuttal to contrast Bush's dividend tax cut proposal that he says is aimed at the wealthy with Democratic plans to "help out everyday people who are struggling."
Locke is also expected to complain the White House isn't doing enough to look out for the economic well-being of the states. The White House has said that transferring cash from the federal treasury to state treasuries does not create stimulus.
Locke, who could go for a third term in 2004, said he would talk about the war on terrorism, but has not indicated whether he will address the growing crisis in Iraq.
But if Locke doesn't touch on Iraq, congressional opponents who usually take the lead in criticizing the president have already prepared their criticism of the president's handling of foreign affairs, accusing the commander-in-chief of inconsistency, a fatal flaw that they claim confuses the public.
"They sense the indecision on what to do about the war on terrorism. They see the shifts in direction, the false starts and the backsliding on basic promises," said Daschle.
As for Iraq, though, the administration has never publicly said war is inevitable, and in fact, repeatedly asserts that war can be averted if Saddam complies with the United Nations. But after a report Monday by Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, that suggested Iraq doesn't even grasp how terribly it's complying with U.N. resolutions, questions are mounting over whether the president will issue a call to arms.
The White House said not yet, at least not in Tuesday's speech.
"They won't hear a deadline. They won't hear a declaration of war," Fleischer said.
Fox News' Carl Cameron and The Associated Press contributed to this report.