From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, and Huma Zaidi
Taking his State of the Union show on the road, as he typically does when trying to sell policy initiatives, President Bush travels to DuPont in Wilmington, DE to talk about energy. Tomorrow, he'll visit Missouri to talk about health care. Expect the usual campaign-like trappings of a Bush sales pitch, including banners and e-mails titled, "What They're Saying About..." What will be missing is the personal popularity Bush has relied upon to sell his policies in the past.
While Bush is in Delaware talking about energy, one of several domestic issues on which he's hoping to find common ground with Democrats, Delaware's senior senator will be in Washington overseeing a bipartisan rejection of Bush's proposal to send more US troops to Iraq. Senate Foreign Relations chair Joe Biden (D) is the co-sponsor of the original bipartisan resolution opposing Bush's plan, which the committee will debate and vote on today. Biden touts the measure in a USA Today op-ed together with co-author and potential fellow presidential contender Chuck Hagel (R).
NBC's Ken Strickland reports that Senate Democrats are forgoing any formal response to Bush's speech today, choosing instead to let the committee hearing speak for itself. And still hanging in the air are the words offered by freshman Sen. Jim Webb (D) of Virginia, who delivered perhaps the most widely covered and analyzed State of the Union response for the Democratic party since Bush became president -- because Webb represented not only the majority party in Congress, but also majority public opinion about the war. Also, while Democrats usually try to select responders who bear some symbolic significance, such symbols don't come much more powerful than Webb, whose son is serving in Iraq and whose victory literally handed Democrats control of the Senate.
Not only will Iraq overshadow many of Bush's new and renewed domestic initiatives, but it has sapped him of the personal standing he once relied upon in taking his sales pitches directly to the public, rather than to Congress. His job approval rating of 35% in the new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll is 15 points lower than it was when he embarked upon his campaign to sell Americans on private accounts for Social Security two years ago. Even at 50%, Bush and his team overestimated his influence with the public and proved unable to generate a sufficient groundswell of support to help them persuade Congress to approve the accounts. Still, after his 60-day campaign, Social Security did come to rank as a top public concern, with a majority of Americans seeing the program's solvency as being threatened.
In pushing health care, at least, Bush doesn't have to start by convincing the public that it should be a top concern -- they're already on board. The NBC/Journal poll shows that the cost of health care is their top economic concern and the number of uninsured is the issue (out of several named) that disturbs them the most about what's going on with the country.
But as with Social Security, Bush is now tackling domestic issues on which he and the GOP don't possess a natural edge in public opinion. Per the NBC/Journal poll, Americans prefer Democrats above Republicans to handle Social Security by 24 points, energy by 24 points, education by 20 points, and immigration by 10 points. Instead of bypassing Congress in favor of selling his initiatives directly to the public, his poll standing dictates that he's going to have to work Democratic lawmakers at the same time if he hopes to make any progress on these issues.