When President Bush takes to the airwaves Tuesday night to deliver his sixth State of the Union address, the metamessage of the evening will be: "I am still relevant."
Of course, as commander in chief during wartime, Mr. Bush is central. But as he seeks to show that he is not consumed by the Iraq war and its high-profile retooling, this year's annual message to Congress takes on added significance. In an effort to grab public attention, he is promising a different type of State of the Union – not the usual laundry list of items from the forthcoming budget, but a more focused look at a few key initiatives, most of them domestic.
The irony is that, for the first time, Bush will be speaking to a Congress in which both chambers are controlled by the opposition. For him to implement any proposals, he must find the common ground with Democrats that has been so talked about since November. Even when Republicans controlled Congress, there were no guarantees; Bush's 2005 plan to partially privatize Social Security failed to get off the ground.
This year, the most extensively previewed plan centers on a tax reform aimed at making health insurance more affordable to low-income people. The proposal would also reduce the tax break for more expensive health plans. In addition, Bush's speech will focus on energy, education, immigration, and the war on terror.
But will anyone be listening?
Just two weeks ago, Bush delivered a major address announcing the "new way forward" in Iraq, including a plan to add more than 20,000 US troops to try to bring some stability to Baghdad and areas where insurgents are believed to be operating. The speech did little to move polling numbers on Iraq and the Bush presidency, both stuck below 50 percent. In recent days Bush has said he will address the criticism of his plan – including from fellow Republicans – in the State of the Union speech.