No glory in final Union speech, just the beginning of the end

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For George Bush, the final State of the Union speech should have been the crowning glory of his two-term presidency.

By tradition, the address is a time for Republicans and Democrats to put bickering aside and show respect for the office of the presidency, if not the man counting down his remaining 355 days in the White House. Plenty of respect was shown, during the speech, but the Democrats, now confident that they will provide the next US president, provided the drama of the evening.

All eyes were on the Democratic presidential front-runners Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, their every move noted and analysed. With a spring in his step Mr Obama walked into the chamber alongside Senator Teddy Kennedy, who had just endorsed his campaign.

Then Hillary Clinton set tongues wagging when she plunged through the crowd before the speech to shake hands with Mr Kennedy. Mr Obama, standing between them, turned away, in what some interpreted as a snub and others said was an effort not to intrude.

After the address, Mr Bush greeted Mr Obama with a "Hey buddy, how's it going" and they chatted briefly while Mrs Clinton left the room. "It's an end, but it's also a beginning," commented the liberal Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar. "Somewhere in that chamber was the next president."

The annual address to a joint session of Congress is marked by much bear-hugging and bonhomie and Mr Bush was interrupted nearly 70 times by applause.

Mr Bush's ratings have fallen with each State of the Union message he has delivered. His first speech, delivered after the 11 September 2001 attacks, gave him an 82 per cent approval rating. Today it is at 29 per cent according to the latest New York Times-CBS poll.

The poll numbers are unlikely to rise after his latest speech, which was notably short on policy initiatives. European diplomats noted that it was mercifully short of the bellicose language of previous addresses, like the ill-fated "axis of evil" remarks.

Aside from the ongoing disaster in Iraq, there is a lot of unfinished business in Mr Bush's outbox. The expectation is that he will leave office without achieving the permanent tax cuts he has promised, privatising social security or reforming immigration law. "Nothing he proposed on Monday is likely to redefine how history judges his presidency", said The New York Times.

On Iraq, Mr Bush's remarks seemed to prepare the nation for a long stay. "General [David] Petraeus has warned that too fast a drawdown could result in the disintegration of the Iraqi security forces, al-Qai'da-Iraq regaining lost ground and a marked increase in violence," he said. Further troop withdrawals would have to await the advice of General Petraeus from his headquarters in Baghdad, he said.

This is anathema for Democrats, some of whom chanted, "Bring them home. Bring them home". Both Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama have committed to bringing two brigades home every month if elected. Both also intend to keep a force in the region.

Mr Bush, who as yet has no obvious Republican heir, proposed a handful of initiatives, including tax cuts for married couples and grants for college tuition. He promised to support his party's nominee in the election, but none of the candidates are keen to invoke his name on the campaign trail. Senator John McCain did not even show up at Capitol Hill, preferring to campaign in Florida.