WASHINGTON -- He may have done too well for his own good.
By the time President Bush had conjured up a picture of "tens of thousands of trained terrorists ... still at large" and warned that "the world's most dangerous regimes" -- North Korea, Iran and Iraq -- could "threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons," most viewers of Tuesday's State of the Union Address probably were suffering an overdose of emotion.
What came after his call for "the largest increase in defense spending in two decades" seemed an afterthought. Even with the repeated promise of "good jobs," the whole domestic and economic program was a blur to minds still wondering how we would ever root out all the killers in our midst or topple the rulers of Baghdad, Tehran and Pyongyang.
Bush spoke from a position of enormous political power, his job approval in a Washington Post poll published the morning of the speech "higher and more protracted than any modern president." And yet, that and other surveys found that domestic concerns now preoccupy the public more than the threat of terrorism.
Bush sought to link his military-diplomatic strategy with his domestic agenda under the rubric of "security," but gave far different weight to the two pieces. Last week's Battleground poll conducted by Republican Ed Goeas and Democrat Celinda Lake said that voters rate the domestic economy their top worry over terrorism by a 2-to-1 margin. And within the economy, they found, the biggest concern by far is the rising cost of medical care. Bush made no explicit reference to that problem and devoted only one paragraph toward the end of the speech to the whole issue of health.
Yet, as I learned from Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson earlier that same day, next week's budget will show some major increases and significant policy innovations in health care.
It's clear this is not where Bush's mind is centered. The import and intent of this State of the Union was to wrench the nation's focus back to the subject that is all-consuming to the president: The war on terrorism.
When he said last September that defeating terrorism would be the chief purpose of his presidency, he meant it. Everything that the Post's Bob Woodward and Dan Balz have written in their detailed reconstruction of the first days in the White House following Sept. 11 confirms that Bush's instinctive response to the attacks was to put his administration and the country on a wartime footing.
As the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks have receded, Americans have moved back toward a pre-crisis mood. You could feel the difference in the House chamber where Bush spoke. The emotion was far less intense than it had been when Bush last addressed the lawmakers and the nation, just nine days after the assault.
Democrats have to try to separate the domestic issues on which they disagree with Bush from the war on terrorism to have any hope of prevailing in the November elections. So far, their position looks weak -- with no consistent message on taxes, trade or other issues. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt's call for a White House-congressional summit on domestic policy is a device for buying time, an offer he knows Bush will refuse.
But the Democrats are not yet out of the game. When the budget comes out next week, there will be hundreds of freezes or cuts in programs important to domestic constituencies. When I asked Budget Director Mitch Daniels the other day how much political flak he expects, his answer was: "It depends if we can sell guns vs. butter."
That's an honest answer, but it implies that Bush, as well as the Democrats, will have to emphasize the gap between his top priority, the war on terrorism, and the domestic concerns now uppermost on the minds of voters.
And then there is the Enron factor. It was striking that while Bush was ready to denounce by name the nations on his target list of terrorist states, he was squeamish about dealing explicitly with Enron and its auditor, Arthur Andersen. The day of the speech, the stock market had dived on fears that other companies might be cooking their books. Almost everyone with money in a pension fund is worried. But Bush gave it barely a glance: Three sentences at the end, with no acknowledgement of the source of the fears.
Strong as his support on the war undoubtedly is, he has left his political opponents an opening.
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