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Bush Speech to Lay Out Agenda

State of the Union likely to focus on war, conservative themes

WHEN President Bush gave his first State of the Union address a year ago, the nation was in the eighth year of the longest peacetime expansion in history, and the cold war was melting in Europe. Now, a year later, both peace and prosperity have receded. The nation is at war, and the gross national product shrank 2.1 percent last quarter.

Yet the president's phenomenal job approval ratings are even higher.

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A year ago, pollsters and public opinion analysts noted an undercurrent of foreboding and fragility beneath the nation's well-being, a sense that the US position in the world may be eroding.

This year, the Gulf war has abruptly snapped Americans out of their funk.

As a glimpse of how confidence has burst forth, one poll is typical of what many have shown. CNN-Gallup found in early January that only 32 percent of Americans were satisfied with the way things were going in the country. The same poll two weeks later, after the war began, found 62 percent satisfied.

Political scientist Everett Carll Ladd of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research Inc. calls it ``a general firming up of the nation's confidence'' in American competence and standing in the world.

It is that sense of America's role in the world that Mr. Bush is likely to seek to articulate Tuesday night in his second State of the Union address.

The State of the Union has become the primary forum modern presidents use to lay out their agenda for the coming year. It is closely linked to release of the president's budget, which follows next week.

At least half the speech tomorrow is expected to concern the war against Iraq.

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Bush did not make his final decisions about what to include in the speech until this weekend, and perhaps not until tonight, according to White House staff members.

The domestic affairs part of the speech has been the target of vigorous ideological battle within the administration through the fall.

On the one side, a network of conservatives led by a young policy planning aide, James Pinkerton, hoped the speech would chart a revolution in how government operates. On the other, more centrist voices led by budget director Richard Darman sought a modest agenda that would - above all - keep spending under control.

Very few people, even in the White House, know how the speech will turn out. One official, who has served in the White House through half a dozen State of the Union speeches, says, ``this has been far and away the most centralized process ever.''

By centralized, he explains, he means it has been closely held in the hands of budget director Darman. Even chief of staff John Sununu has been too absorbed in the conduct of the war to put his usual strong stamp on the speech, says the official.

Many in the White House and in conservative circles outside expect the language of conservative revolutionaries to echo in the president's speech. Themes such as empowerment, decentralizing bureaucracies, and reform of the welfare state would please conservatives. But few are expecting, or demanding, any new or dramatic initiatives.

``We're not expecting a lot of time'' for conservative themes, says Tony Blankley, press secretary to House Republican whip Newt Gingrich, who led House conservatives in revolt against the president's budget deal last fall. ``We're going to read this State of the Union differently than if there weren't a war. It won't get the same kind of textual analysis it would otherwise.''

Last year, the Bush administration led into the State of the Union with nearly a week of daily announcements of major policy directions. The speech itself was then shorter than usual and more broadly thematic, since the most important programs were already detailed in public.

Two factors changed the strategy this year. One, all the announcements upstaged the speech last year and cut its impact, says an administration official. Two, the war is displacing much of the attention that might have gone to domestic announcements.

If Bush's talks in the past few days are any guide, then he will seek to articulate in his speech his own strong sense of the morality of going to war in the Gulf based on the vicious nature and dangerousness of Saddam Hussein.

He is also likely to offer some vision of what the future could look like under the vaunted ``new world order'' if the Gulf war is successful, notes Columbia University history professor Henry Graff.

``The success of this thing so far will make Bush stand eight feet tall'' as he delivers his address to the joint session of Congress, he says.

Although Bush does not perform well in calls-to-arms speeches, he adds, ``the quiet integrity of the Bushes will shine through.''

Bush is also likely to at least touch on a major administration effort underway - drafting new regulations for the teetering banking system.

Other legislative interests at the White House include anti-crime measures such as narrowing the exclusionary rule on tainted evidence and ``enhancing'' the death penalty, a comprehensive civil rights bill to counter more liberal measures in Congress, and campaign finance reforms.

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