WASHINGTON – Democratic congressional leaders criticized President Bush's policies on the economy and the war on terrorism on Friday in a "pre-buttal" to Tuesday's State of the Union (search) address, the president's annual opportunity to assess the nation's progress and propose new ideas.
"Sadly, if the past is prologue, the president's speech will be another missed opportunity to offer the leadership worthy of a great nation and an agenda that addresses the urgent priorities of the American people," said California Rep. Nancy Pelosi (search), the House Democratic leader.
"The strength of our union depends on decent, affordable health care for all Americans and a secure retirement, policies that protect us from terrorism without forcing us to give up basic freedoms and a commitment to act as a world leader without alienating old friends and essential allies. Those are Americans' priorities. And they are what we will be listening for on Tuesday," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (search), D-S.D., told reporters.
Bush is expected to discuss the war on terror and the economic recovery as he outlines the broad themes of his re-election bid on Tuesday. While Democrats call for change, Bush is likely to deliver a stay-the-course message.
"Our nation has faced a number of great challenges in the last few years. And we are continuing to confront those challenges. We are acting decisively to address them," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said on Friday.
"We have been working to meet our priorities, both at home and abroad, but there is much that remains to be done to continue to make America more secure, to continue to make America more prosperous, and to continue to make America more hopeful. And it will be in that tone that the president will address the Congress and the American people," McClellan said.
"It will be a forward looking speech, but also one that takes stock of our accomplishments. We're meeting a lot of important historical tests," added White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett.
Bush will focus on national security and the economic recovery, said Merle Black, professor of political science at Emory College. He will "probably argue that we are in a continuing war on terror, that we're making progress, that we need to keep things as they are."
Bush has been hammered on the campaign trail by some of the anti-war presidential candidates seeking to replace him.
The speech will be an opportunity to explain again the motives for going to war, said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Millersville University of Pennsylvania. Madonna said the president has several goals he needs to achieve with the speech.
"Obviously, this is a critical address for Bush," Madonna said. "He has to articulate the reason for going to war in Iraq. I do think he has to reach out to independents and other voters who have been giving him the benefit of the doubt, but have not completely closed their minds to the idea that the rationale might not have been" the real reason America went to war.
"On a domestic side, I think he will praise the tax cuts and recovery. He will argue that the tax cuts have been mainly responsible for the [gross national product] growth in the last two quarters, and he will say something to deal with the deficit. I think he will be upbeat and positive and stress that his approach to the economy is working."
But Daschle said the president doesn't have anything to brag about when it comes to the economy.
"For a select few Americans — the very wealthy and the well-connected, these last three years have been good years. But for the vast majority of Americans, the president's policies have not worked as advertised," he said.
The White House has indicated that Bush will attempt to revive a proposal to allow younger workers to invest a portion of their savings in the stock market, and will highlight his recently announced immigration proposal to allow illegal aliens to register in the United States without penalty.
Among the other specific proposals that Bush might make are a call for making the tax cuts permanent, an initiative dealing with marriage, and a focus on faith-based initiatives, said Trevor Parry-Giles, professor of political communication at the University of Maryland.
"Usually when incumbent presidents are running for re-election, the State of the Union is a great way to kick off the themes of the campaign," said Parry-Giles. The speech will be a great opportunity "to find out where the campaign will be fought from the Republican perspective."
Likewise, Madonna said that these speeches are often not very memorable and though they do not "determine whether you win or lose elections, however, it's one of the two or three times in a year when all of the attention focuses on this one delivery. It's important because it will reach a lot of people."
Although the Democratic presidential candidates have been dominating the news in recent days and will continue to be prominent with Iowa's caucuses on Monday as well as a slew of other state primaries to follow shortly thereafter, Bush has been wresting away some media attention.
With his recent immigration proposal, space initiative for a manned Mars mission, and now the State of the Union address, Bush is able to increase his footprint on the media landscape, Madonna said.
"It does keep the Democrats from having a completely free field. It focuses back on the leadership that the president has shown," he said.
Special guests have become a regular feature of State of the Union addresses, and some experts speculate that there may be some surprise guests, possibly the soldier or soldiers who pulled Saddam Hussein out of his hiding place in Iraq.