Bush tries to revive presidency with plan to reduce petrol use

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With his popularity dipping to record lows, George W Bush sought to revive his foundering presidency last night with new proposals to increase health coverage for Americans, and cut the country's petrol consumption by a fifth over the next decade.

Delivering his sixth annual State of the Union address to a Congress now controlled by Democrats, Mr Bush sought to shift the focus from his bitterly contested "surge" in US troop strength in Iraq to domestic policy. "We can work through our differences," he declared, according to early excerpts of the speech released by the White House, as the President urged bipartisan consensus to secure the passage of key initiatives that might restore a little lustre to his record.

Foremost among them is the so-called "20-10" project, designed to reduce petrol use 20 per cent over the next 10 years ­ mainly by a five-fold boost in production of ethanol and other home grown fuels ­ saving about 8.5 billion gallons of petrol by 2017, Mr Bush claimed.

He presented the move as a concrete step towards ending what he described in last year's State of the Union as America's "addiction to oil", that weakened both the national economy and US national security.

"This dependence leaves us more vulnerable to hostile regimes and to terrorists," he declared last night, warning of huge disruptions in the supply and price of oil. It was in America's vital interest to diversify its energy supply, "and the way forward is through technology".

For the first time Mr Bush used this great set-piece occasion to tackle the issue of climate change. But his praise of technology seemed to rule out adoption by the federal government of mandatory limits on carbon emissions, as proposed by California and some other states, by a broadening array of US businesses ­ among them some energy utilities ­ and by foreign leaders, notably Tony Blair and Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor.

Instead, from the moment it rejected the Kyoto agreement in 2001, the Bush administration, long sceptical about the very notion of global warming, has always insisted that any internationally agreed restraints must be voluntary rather than compulsory.

Also high on the Presidental wish list was healthcare reform. Last night, Mr Bush urged tax changes that the White House claims will encourage up to five million of the 47 million Americans currently without insurance to buy coverage.

He also repeated his call for sweeping immigration reform, offering some illegal immigrants a path to legal residency and citizenship ­ a subject to which the new Democratic majorities in the House and Senate are more sympathetic than their Republican predecessors. Mr Bush urged Congress to pass "fair laws", arguing that the US could not fully secure its borders against illegal immigration "unless we take pressure off the border". And that, he said, required a temporary worker programme, a device his Republican foes have dismissed as an amnesty.

But Iraq overshadowed everything as Mr Bush stepped on to the rostrum in the a predominantly hostile chamber of the House of Representatives, shorn of the comforting and friendly figure of Dennis Hastert, the former Republican speaker, behind him. Instead, he was introduced by Mr Hastert's Democratic successor, Nancy Pelosi, one of Mr Bush's most trenchant critics on Iraq.

A new batch of polls yesterday only underlined how far Mr Bush has fallen from his post 9/11 pinnacle to unqualified "lame duck" status, overwhelmingly because of a war which two-thirds of Americans now consider a mistake.

With sectarian violence in Iraq growing unstoppably, an ABC/Washington Post poll yesterday showed his approval at just 33 per cent, while a CBS/New York Times survey put him at an all-time low of 28 per cent ­ depths unmatched by any post-war president, except Richard Nixon as Watergate reached its climax in 1974, and by Harry Truman in 1952, at the depths of the Korean war.