Bush Makes His Case

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LUKE FRAZZA / AP

The President at last year's State of the Union address

This week will see the beginning of the trial of former Enron boss Ken Lay, and, in all likelihood, the confirmation of Samuel Alito to be the newest associate justice of the Supreme Court. On Sunday, Americans will tune in to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks go head to head at the Super Bowl in Detroit—and Mick Jagger strut at the half-time show. But even the Rolling Stones won't be able to upstage the biggest news event of the week, when President Bush delivers his State of the Union address on Tuesday at 9 p.m.

Now that the annual address has become the most important speech a president gives in any year, it’s hard to remember that until Woodrow Wilson, presidents from Thomas Jefferson on used to simply deliver a State of the Union message to Congress without appearing in person. It was more of a memo than a speech. As recently as 1964, the speech was given at midday to a much smaller television audience. The State of the Union we know for its theatrics is all relatively new, with the tradition of inviting and singling out special guests only begun by (who else?) Ronald Reagan in his 1981 speech.

For George W. Bush, the huge platform provides a welcome opportunity to make a fresh start with the American people after his worst year in office. His mediocre approval ratings sit in the low forties, according to several recent national polls. And the stakes are high as Bush tries to right his presidency and give his party a stronger footing going into the November midterm elections, where the historical trend has been for the party in power to lose a substantial numbers of seats. (The notable exception was 1998, when Bill Clinton’s Democrats actually gained ground.)

Not surprisingly, White House officials have been poring over drafts for weeks. This is the first year that former Wall Street Journal editorial writer Bill McGurn has run the speech operation. But former speechwriting pointman Mike Gerson, now a counselor to the President and one of the architects of Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” has been brought in to help give the address added polish.

Republicans and Bush allies tell TIME that the speech will be largely thematic and avoid being too much of a laundry list of proposals. The President will once again restate the case for keeping American troops in Iraq, repeating the argument that the fight there is central to the war on terror. Bush will denounce the idea of a precipitous withdrawal but will argue, yet again, that as the Iraqi army gathers strength, the American presence will slowly but steadily be reduced. Republican allies of the President tell TIME Bush will call on Congress to renew the USA Patriot Act, which is due to expire soon. Bush allies believe this could be one of the most politically effective, galvinizing moments of the speech, leaving Democrats who have been wary of renewing portions of the act looking less than vigorous in the effort to combat terrorism.

In much the same vein, senior administration official said that Bush will specifically mention the controversial National Security Agency eavesdropping program, reflecting his determination to make it a winning issue. Other aides said Bush will strike an optimstic, upbeat tone despite all the crises besetting him. The official said that in addition to a progress report on Iraq, Bush will discuss "other threats like Iran."

Presidential advisers have told TIME that Bush will describe the world as full of change in the economy, demographics and technology—and he’ll tout his ideas as ways of giving Americans tools to deal with this tumult. He’ll repackage several longstanding ideas—like tort reform and making permanent the tax cuts that are due to expire in the coming years—as essential to the American economy. He’ll also tout health care reform—especially the idea, endorsed by politicians from Hillary Rodham Clinton to Newt Gingrich, to use technology to lower health care costs—but avoid getting mired in details like expanding Health Savings Accounts, which Bush has been talking up in recent days. These accounts, established in 2003, allow Americans to save for health care expenses in a tax free account so long as they buy a catastrophic insurance policy with a high deductible. "I'm going to remind people we're living in historic times and that we have a chance to make decisions today that will help shape the direction of events for years to come," Bush said last week.

At the same time, the President will talk about the need for energy independence, and will make an oblique but renewed push for drilling in the Arctic Naitonal Wildlife Refuge. He’ll also tout his ideas for a second, no-child-left-behind-style proposal that will establish standards for high school students. And despite his Administration's troubled response, he is expected to reference Hurricane Katrina, saluting the American spirit of giving to charity.

The day after the speech, Bush will jet to Nashville to try and keep selling his agenda. And next week, he’ll release his budget, which will lay out in hundreds of pages of detail—without the speech's soaring rhetoric or theatrics—where the White House's priorities really lie.