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When the State of the Presidency Isn't So Hot


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

President Bush spent the weekend preparing for tomorrow night's State of the Union address. It will be Mr. Bush's first address to a Congress in which Democrats control both houses. And it comes at a time when the president is struggling to win back an increasingly unhappy American public. Coming up, we're going to hear about some of the proposals the president will make on energy and healthcare.

First, NPR's Don Gonyea reports from the White House. Speechwriters there have been looking for the words to reassure and perhaps rally the public behind the president.

DON GONYEA: Certainly other presidents have stood at the rostrum in the U.S. House chamber at difficult and uncertain times for the country and themselves delivering the annual report on the state of the nation.

In January of 1975, President Gerald Ford offered an unvarnished picture of the U.S. economy speaking in unusually blunt terms.

GERALD FORD: And I must say to you that the state of the union is not good. Millions of Americans are out of work. Recession and inflation are eroding the money of millions more. Prices are too high and sales are too slow.

GONYEA: Then there was President Bill Clinton in January of 1996 trying to reassert his own authority in the face of Republicans who'd seized control of the Congress a year earlier. President Clinton appropriated a common Republican vision.

BILL CLINTON: The era of big government is over.


GONYEA: President George W. Bush spoke to a combined session of a closely divided Congress just a month after taking office in 2001. At that time, he was still something of a question mark to many Americans, given the bitterness following the legal battle that settled the 2000 election. He tried to defuse the tension with humor.

GEORGE W: I thank you for your invitation to speak here tonight. I know Congress had to formally invite me. And it could have been a close vote.


BUSH: So Mr. Vice President, I appreciate you being here to break the tie.

GONYEA: That was six years ago. Now the divisions President Bush faces are far, far deeper, rooted in his own policies, especially the Iraq war. Press Secretary Tony Snow was asked today if Iraq is the most important issue facing the U.S. He responded that, quote, it's hard to say.

As for the part it will play in the State of the Union address -

TONY SNOW: There will be a significant amount of time devoted not just to Iraq, but to the war on terror and to the way in which we plan to forward in addressing it.

GONYEA: The White House says tomorrow night's speech will not be a repeat of the primetime address on Iraq the president delivered nearly two weeks ago. In his Saturday radio address, the president previewed a healthcare proposal that would provide tax deductions for healthcare insurance costs but also treat employer-paid health benefits as taxable income.

Also look for the president to talk tomorrow night about energy, immigration and education. White House officials insist that this won't be the typical State of the Union laundry list, that it will be more thematic. It's already certain the speech will be very different in at least one way for President Bush. Most of the faces looking back at him from the floor below will be Democrats, and there will be far fewer smiles.

Don Gonyea, NPR News. The White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.