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Bush Looks to Seize Political Initiative in Tuesday Speech

President Bush has an opportunity to seize the political spotlight Tuesday when he delivers the annual State of the Union address to Congress and the American people.

The inspiration for the State of the Union address comes from the U.S. Constitution, which says the president shall, from time to time, report to Congress on the State of the Union.

Throughout much of U.S. history that has taken the form of a written message from the president to Congress. But the address has taken on a life of its own in the modern media age with a prime-time television audience watching at home.

Most political analysts now see the address as an opportunity for the president to build support for his foreign and domestic policy initiatives and to frame the political debate for the year ahead, which happens to be a congressional election year.

Republicans hope Mr. Bush will use this year's speech to begin a political rebound after a difficult 2005 during which the president's public approval ratings fell to new lows over Iraq, domestic energy prices and the response to Hurricane Katrina.

"I am going to continue to talk about an optimistic agenda that will remind folks that we have a responsibility to lead," said Mr. Bush.

Democrats will offer a brief rebuttal to the president's speech. Virginia's new Democratic governor, Tim Kaine, will make his debut as a spokesman for the opposition party.

"We need to hear honesty, humility from the Commander in Chief, not swagger from the campaigner in chief," said the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada.

In addition to outlining his domestic and foreign policy agenda for the year ahead, Mr. Bush is also expected to make an impassioned defense of his leadership in the war on terror and to remind Americans of the importance of staying the course in Iraq.

University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato says Iraq will remain a defining issue for the American public this year much as it did in 2005.

"I think most Americans, in signing on for this venture [Iraq], which they did somewhat hesitantly, they assumed that it would be short-term event and of course, already it has turned into two years," he said. "The projections are that it will go many years in the future, at least to a certain degree. Inevitably in 2006 the president will have to reduce the troop levels. Either that or Republicans will suffer greatly in the midterm elections."

The November congressional elections are expected to drive much of the political debate this year with Democrats hoping to take advantage of a historical trend that opposition parties usually make gains in the House and Senate in the sixth year of a two-term presidency.

Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says the Democrats hope to take advantage of public unease over Iraq and a growing corruption scandal involving a once influential Republican lobbyist, Jack Abramoff.

"So while there has been some criticism that the Democrats do not have a detailed plan, they do not really need one and they are not rushing to one," said Rothenberg. "They do not have one. Basically, the Democratic argument is that things are not going well, give us a chance."

Experts also note that the political leverage of presidents tends to weaken toward the end of their second terms as both parties prepare for the next presidential election, in this case in 2008.

"Traditionally, historically, a president re-elected has, maybe at the outside, two years of a second term to really be seen as still the undisputed leader of the country politically," commented Patrick Basham, who monitors the U.S. political scene for the Cato Institute in Washington. "After two years, his power begins to fade away quite quickly and quite considerably and I think this president recognizes that."

For all the attention paid to State of the Union addresses, historians note that the public often pays relatively little attention. In fact, a ranking of the top 100 American speeches in the 20th century includes just one State of the Union speech, the one given by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941.