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Energy, Health Care Central to Upcoming Presidential Address

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

President Bush delivers his fifth State of the Union Address tonight at the Capitol building. The speech comes at a critical time in Mr. Bush's presidency. His public approval ratings are far below where they were last year at this time, and since this is an election year for Congress, it could make it more difficult for the president to maintain unified support for his programs within his own party. However a State of the Union address gives presidents an opportunity to focus attention on their priorities.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA reporting:

You could see tonight's speech as an attempt at a clean start for the White House after a very difficult 2005: from Iraq to Katrina to indictments in the probe of the leaked name of a CIA agent to a Republican lobbying scandal. If the president's previous State of the Union addresses provide any clues, look for Mr. Bush to focus on the positive tonight. This is from 2002, months after 9/11 with U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: As we gather tonight, our nation is at war, our economy is in recession and the civilized world faces unprecedented dangers. Yet the state of our union has never been stronger.

GONYEA: A year later, the president spoke within weeks of invading Iraq.

President BUSH: In a world with change and hope and peril, our faith is sure, our resolve is firm and our union is strong.

GONYEA: And there's this from last year with the president fresh off the election and confident of his political capitol, even as difficulties in Iraq continued.

President BUSH: Tonight, with a healthy growing economy, with more Americans going back to work, with our nation an active force for good in the world, the state of our union is confident and strong.

GONYEA: Last year's speech also featured an ambitious domestic policy proposal revamping Social Security.

President BUSH: The system, however, on its current path is headed toward bankruptcy and so we must join together to strengthen and save Social Security.

GONYEA: The president's proposal to allow younger workers to privately invest money they pay into Social Security drew criticism. Polls showed worries that that would increase the deficit and hurt the financial status of the current system. The president would eventually travel to half of the states, making his case on Social Security but to no avail.

It was an early sign that 2005 would not go according to the White House script. Other proposals from last year's speech included expanding No Child Left Behind education reforms to high school. That too failed to pass as did a call for simplifying the entire U.S. tax code. But there were also successes from last year's address.

White House Spokesman Scott McClellan.

Mr. SCOTT MCCLELLAN (Spokesman, White House): We passed a comprehensive energy plan that put us on the path to reduce independence on foreign sources of energy. There's more to do. Energy prices are too high. We also were able to pass class action reform to reduce frivolous litigation.

GONYEA: Energy is also expected to be a major focus tonight with the president promising to talk about how to reduce dependence on foreign oil. Other proposals include plans to help Americans afford rising healthcare costs.

Additionally, the president will use this speech to update the nation on Iraq, on Iran's nuclear program and on last week's victory by the militant group Hamas in Palestinian elections. Those events underscore how even on a night when the president gets to lay out his agenda for the coming year, it's only his best guess as to what issues will occupy the nation and its government over the coming 12 months.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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