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Bush offers big ideas, but will Congress concur?

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A balanced federal budget within five years. A major change in the way the tax code treats health insurance. A 20 percent reduction in the amount of gasoline consumed by the United States.

President Bush has only two years left in office, and his approval ratings are at a low ebb, but even given these constraints, he does not appear to be thinking small. His State of the Union address Tuesday night featured some of the most ambitious domestic policy proposals he has yet offered during his presidency.

But two words Mr. Bush uttered at the speech's beginning – "Madam Speaker" – hint at the problems the administration may have in pursuing the State of the Union's big ideas. With Congress in the hands of new Democratic leadership, including the first woman to lead the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the White House is no longer driving the nation's domestic agenda.

And Iraq – which came second to domestic items in the speech – remains perhaps Bush's, and the nation's, foremost problem. The struggle to calm sectarian violence in Baghdad and Anbar Province will preoccupy many in the White House, Pentagon, and Congress for weeks and months to come.

Still, there is time and space to work on Bush's proposals, if lawmakers will meet him halfway, insist administration officials.

"As president, he has the ability to articulate issues, and he's got a responsibility for dealing with them ... and the president doesn't lay it out as a challenge or a confrontation but in fact as an opportunity to work together," said White House spokesman Tony Snow at a Tuesday briefing for reporters on the State of the Union's details.

The State of the Union address is always a dramatic event on Washington's political calendar – a night when US chief executives have commanded the eyes of the nation, and insisted even to critics that whatever their difficulties, they still count.

They alone stand at the podium in the well of the House. They alone get to define the nation's state in a word or phrase. (Usually "good", or "strong", but not always.) At the end, they introduce the now almost-obligatory corps of notable Americans sitting in the gallery, and describe their accomplishments and share in their applause. (For Bush, these people included Julie Aigner-Clark, recognized for building her children's video business into a $200 million company, and Wesley Autrey, who three weeks ago at a Harlem subway station jumped in front of a train and saved a young man who had fallen onto the tracks.)


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