Bush runs out of cards to play

NEWS ANALYSIS

Lame-duck leader unlikely to get support for proposals in national address.

IT WAS a night for President George W. Bush to win over sceptical Americans. But the odds were stacked against him evenbefore his State of the Union address.

He walked into the chamber on Capitol Hill on Tuesday facing a clutch of obstacles that perhaps no other post-war US president has faced: growing public disenchantment with his leadership – as latest opinion polls show – and a hostile Democrat-held Congress.

Compare this to his position two years ago.

Shortly after his re-election, Mr Bush trumpeted that he had the political capital to expend.

Yesterday’s imperial President is now a lame duck as his support base crumbles and attention shifts to the 2008 race.

His tone during the speech captured this numbing reality. Gone was the bluster of the past.

Clearly, he was attempting to shore up his weakening office by winning over Democrats and war-weary Americans with a slew of domestic initiatives, from expanding health insurance coverage to slashing petrol usage by 20 per cent in a decade.

But he remained firm on Iraq, where lines have been drawn against the Democrats and a growing number of Republicans.

For Mr Bush, the battle over his legacy will be won in Baghdad, not in Congress.

“I have spoken with many of you in person. I respect you and the arguments you made,” he said. “We went into this largely united, in our assumptions and in our convictions. And whatever you voted for, you did not vote for failure.”

He added: “Our country is pursuing a new strategy in Iraq, and I ask you to give it a chance to work. And I ask you to support our troops in the field and those on their way.”

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a key Bush ally, praised the proposal to add some 21,000 troops to US forces in Iraq.

But Mr Bush’s speech was rebuffed by Mr Abe’s Defence Minister Fumio Kyuma, who warned that Tokyo could not automatically renew its air force mission to Iraq when it expires in July.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar, whose country chairs the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Conference, said having more troops would not solve the sectarian conflict in Iraq.

Linking troop support to the new war plans was a clever ploy by White House speechwriters.

It forced most notable Bush critics on the issue – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton – to join in an ovation that gave the appearance of bipartisanship.

The Democrats, while opposed to the war, did not want to be seen to be wavering in their backing for American soldiers.

But after the address, Mrs Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid responded with a resounding “no” to Mr Bush’s appeal for support for his Iraq strategy.

“While the President continues to ignore the will of the country, Congress will not ignore this President’s failed policy,” they said in a joint statement.

“His plan will receive an up-or-down vote in both the House and Senate, and we will continue to hold him accountable for changing course in Iraq.”

Senator Jim Webb, a Vietnam veteran picked by the Democrats to deliver their TV response, said: “We need a new direction. The majority of the nation no longer supports the way this war is being fought, nor does the majority of our military.”

A political showdown looms.

But if Mr Bush continued to rile his opponents by being unyielding on Iraq, he still held hope of a truce by reaching out with concessions on domestic policies.

He outlined initiatives that would improve education, provide affordable health care, reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil and reform immigration.

But these were largely a reiteration of past proposals.

Health care was one issue where he broke new ground.

He called for changing the tax code to encourage more people not covered by medical insurance to buy a plan, and to discourage others from keeping the most costly health-care plans.

The White House said 80 per cent of workers with health insurance through jobs would see a tax cut as a result of the change.

But the Democrats refused to bite, warning that this – and most of the President’s other proposals – would not forge a consensus.

Representative Charles Rangel, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, said: “I cannot conceive of this as an olive branch.”

America’s 43rd president is facing dramatic diminished expectations in the twilight of his rule.

Indeed, some of the Republicans – who will be hit hard by political fallout from Iraq – see him as being increasingly irrelevant.

If the State of the Union address was his last stand, he has run out of cards to play.

Even the bully pulpit cannot help now. The Bush era might be over.

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