Briefing: My fellow Americans... is anybody listening?

President Bush embarks on his last State of the Union address tomorrow with low poll ratings, a recession looming and the Democrats on the rise
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The Independent US

Tomorrow evening, President George Bush delivers his last State of the Union address, the greatest set-piece occasion of the US political year, akin to the State Opening of Parliament by the British monarch.

So, what is the real state of the Union right now?

Frankly, not very good, and by almost any yardstick worse than when Bush came to office in January 2001. The economy faces a severe slowdown and possible recession, unemployment is climbing and the dollar is very weak. Abroad, thanks to the Iraq war and the excesses of the "war on terror", Washington's image is in tatters. In geopolitical terms, the global hegemony of the US is threatened by China. Three-quarters of voters believe the country is "on the wrong track", the most in almost 30 years.

What will Mr Bush have to say?

By tradition the address – usually about an hour long – is divided into two parts, domestic and foreign. On the first, the President will claim the economy is basically healthy. He may also renew his call for immigration reform after the collapse of similar efforts last summer in Congress. On foreign affairs, he will insist that the US military must stay the course in Iraq, to consolidate the progress made in providing security and stability since the surge in US troop numbers a year ago. He will also underline the threat posed by Iran.

Will anything President Bush says make much difference?

On the home front, no. His percentage approval rating in polls is down to the mid-30s, there are Democrat majorities in both the House and the Senate, and national attention is fixed on the battle to succeed him. Mr Bush is the lamest of lame ducks. Immigration reform will have to wait for a new president, while the stimulation package for the economy, on which he will dwell tomorrow, has bipartisan support and will pass whatever he does. In foreign affairs, presidents have a freer hand under the constitution. What Bush says must be taken seriously. Remember the "axis of evil" line in his 2002 address – and what happened a year later?

So, will there be new policies on Iraq, Iran or the Middle East crisis?

It's unlikely. President Bush will warn again that Iran is a threat and cannot be allowed a nuclear weapon – despite last year's US intelligence report that Tehran halted its atomic weapons programme in 2003. He will point to progress in Iraq and insist this must not be jeopardised by a hasty troop withdrawal. He will also vow to work for a deal between Palestinians and Israelis before he leaves office on 20 January 2009. He may even say something constructive about global warming.

It's all about legacy, then?

Exactly. Mr Bush's last, best hope of salvaging something from the wreck of his reputation lies in a deal in the Middle East, however improbable, and in bequeathing to his successor an Iraq that is at least manageable. He will try to strike a bipartisan tone. Given that 12 months from now he will be gone, he may get a generous response, even from Democrats.

What should we watch for?

Above all, the decibel level. President Bush will enter the chamber to traditional thunderous applause – cheers for the office, not the man. During the speech, Republicans will give standing ovations. Normally Democrats would be rooted to their seats, so any show of enthusiasm by them would be a bonus. But within 24 hours the whole thing will be forgotten, as results from Tuesday's Republican primary in Florida start coming in.