President aims to rally America after dismal year

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The Independent US

After the worst year of his presidency and with a desperate need to regain the political initiative, George Bush will seek tonight to rally Republicans and persuade all Americans that progress is being made on the most crucial issues confronting the nation.

This, his fifth State of the Union speech, will be among his most important yet. With his personal approval rating dismally low and with his party facing a genuine prospect of defeat in the congressional elections later this year, Mr Bush will deliver an upbeat message, short on specifics but swelled with optimism.

He will argue that progress is being made in Iraq as well as in the so-called war on terror. He is also likely to draw attention to the challenge presented by the stand-off with Iran while stressing his administration has no quarrel with the Iranian people.

His Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, dined in London last night with the other foreign ministers of the UN Security Council's veto-holding powers plus Germany. They discussed whether to press ahead with plans to refer Iran to the Security Council for possible sanctions over its nuclear ambitions later this week. President Bush may also talk about the broader issue of peace in the Middle East, and the Palestinian elections that produced the shock Hamas victory.

"The actions we take in our own country or elsewhere help define America to others, and that's why it's important for us to constantly remind people that we have got a wonderful heart and we are a compassionate nation," Mr Bush said in an interview with CBS television looking ahead to his speech.

With opinion polls showing Mr Bush's approval rating at 42 per cent ­ a dozen points lower than it was this time last year ­ the central question remains whether the President has the capacity to turn around public opinion. Crucially for Republican members of Congress, can Mr Bush do anything to help shore up their defences ahead of November's election which could see them lose either ­ or both ­ the House and Senate?

"In terms of politics, it has been his worst year," said Larry Sabato, professor of politics at the University of Virginia. "So many bad things have happened that he has been unable to [handle] ­ Katrina, the decline in Iraq, pieces of the economy that are not working ... Two-thirds of people think the country is on the wrong track. There is a lot of discontent out there, both [about] foreign and domestic [issues]."

Observers say that if Democrats gain control of the House or Senate, they are likely to instigate a series of investigations into issues such as the handling of Hurricane Katrina and the White House's relationship with lobbyists that would all but cripple the administration.

Stephen Hess, who was involved in writing three State of the Union speeches for President Eisenhower and is currently a professor at George Washington University, said: "His main concern has to be retaining Congress, where both houses have just a slim margin. If he loses even one, in political terms he's toast."

When Mr Bush delivered last year's speech he had just been re-elected and his delivery outlined ambitious aims and a vision for his second term. But in the past 12 months he has watched as his plan to privatise social security has crumbled and his purported ambition of spreading democracy around the world has proved to be at best a double-edged sword.

At home, Mr Bush and his administration have been embroiled in various problems, ranging from the outcry over the revelation about the President's authorisation of a domestic spying programme to the indictment of the senior White House aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby over his alleged involvement in the leaking of the identity of an undercover CIA operative.

At the same time, while many experts say the US economy is performing well, polls suggest few people are giving Mr Bush any credit for that. His personal approval rating is the worst for a president entering his sixth year in office since Richard Nixon was mired in the Watergate scandal, and a recent poll commissioned by ABC/The Washington Post suggests that more than half of voters disapprove of his performance in eight out of nine policy areas, ranging from Iraq to immigration to health care.

On a more positive note for the President, nearly two-thirds of Americans believe the country is safer now than before 11 September 2001, and 53 per cent believe the war in Iraq has improved the nation's long-term security.

Mr Bush is also likely to get a pre-speech boost today with the expected confirmation of his choice for the Supreme Court vacancy, Judge Samuel Alito.

President Bush's previous State of the Union addresses

2005

Buoyed by his re-election to office for a second term, Mr Bush's 2005 State of the Union address strikes a confident and belligerent note. The two main themes are a continuation of his dramatic and idealistic hopes for democracy in the Middle East, and an ambitious domestic agenda.

2004

Mr Bush goes on the defensive over US policy in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Patriot Act, warning of further terrorist attacks on US soil.

2003

Three months before the invasion of Iraq, Mr Bush lambasts Saddam Hussein's "utter contempt for the UN" and warns Iraq could pass weapons of mass destruction to terrorists.

2002

Mr Bush coins the 'Axis of Evil' for those states that his administration suspects of supporting terrorists - Iran, Iraq and North Korea.

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