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Bush’s State of the Union challenge: show the nation he can work with Congress

WASHINGTON — President Bush will tell Americans Tuesday night he has important plans for health care, education and other kitchen table topics that have little to do with Iraq. Yet if the state of the union is strong, so is the nation’s skepticism that he can deliver.
    For the first time, Bush will give his State of the Union address with Democrats in power and looking over his shoulder — literally, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seated right behind him. Most people have no confidence that Bush and a Democratic Congress can solve problems together, a troubling sentiment that has only deepened since the November election, an Associated Press-AOL News poll finds.
    The 9 p.m. EST speech is a chance for Bush to pull his domestic agenda out from the shadow of the Iraq war, if only briefly. So Bush will focus on issues he hopes will appeal to mainstream America — and to Democrats on Capitol Hill, shifting pressure onto them to govern.
    ‘‘He’s got to be convincing, so that the American people believe that he’s serious about working in a bipartisan way,’’ said Charlie Black, a longtime Republican strategist and informal White House adviser. ‘‘If there’s one headline they’d like to have out of this, that would be it.’’
    The president is expected to address:
    — Health care: Bush will propose a tax deduction of $7,500 for individuals and $15,000 for families regardless of whether they buy their own health insurance or receive medical coverage at work. Health care insurance would be considered taxable income, and people with more generous policies could face tax increases unless they change plans. The administration says its plan will help people who buy insurance individually rather than through their employers. The administration says the tax deductions will allow more Americans to buy insurance.
    — Energy: Bush is expected to call for a sharp escalation of corn-based ethanol as a gasoline blend. He also may seek the power to raise fuel economy standards for passenger cars, probably as part of a plan to offer financial incentives for increasing alternative fuels. The auto industry has resisted upgraded mileage requirements and stressed a need for vehicles fueled by alternatives such as ethanol, diesel and eventually hydrogen. Bush asked for the same authority last year. Some Democrats worry the plan would give transportation officials overly broad authority to change the system and note the measure would not have any impact on current gas prices.
    — Education: Bush will push for Congress to renew his education law, No Child Left Behind, which expires this year. Democrats have already signaled their intention to work with him but will expect him to go along with increases in spending. The law pushes schools that receive federal poverty aid to show yearly progress or face sanctions, including allowing students to transfer or demand extra tutoring.
    Bush will also push for an immigration strategy that includes more than tougher border security.
    Meanwhile, bitter feelings over the war stand in the way of the principal goal of the speech — a bipartisan agenda.
    Just about everything Bush wants to do is dependent on a Congress in which even some Republicans are resisting his ideas. Within a day of his speech, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is likely to vote on a resolution condemning his move to send more troops to Iraq.
    No matter the emphasis on domestic issues, Bush cannot skirt the war, and he has no intention of trying.
    Without rehashing the Iraq speech he gave two weeks ago, Bush will defend his stand that Iraq is part of a war on terror that will make Americans safer. That contention will come during a foreign policy passage in which Bush will also tout U.S. humanitarian efforts abroad.
    Since Bush announced his latest Iraq plan, the White House has pointed to signs of progress by the Iraqi government on both political and security fronts. Yet U.S. forces and Iraqi civilians have also endured some of the heaviest, bloodiest attacks of the war.
    Coming after his Iraq speech, which had an enormous buildup, Bush’s sixth State of the Union approaches with an anticlimactic feel. The Democrats and Republicans who want his job are already making headlines even though the 2008 election is still 22 months away.
    With that in mind, Bush’s aides took steps to keep the speech concise and relevant. Topics that might have made the cut in other years — such as recent advancements in cancer research and a drop in cancer-related deaths — have been set aside, often for separate events.

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