WASHINGTON — At first glance, President Bush's State of the Union address on Tuesday evening seems a fine opportunity for him to solidify his already sky-high popularity and boost his party's agenda at the start of the midterm election year. Bush has successfully routed a terrorist regime in Afghanistan with relatively few American casualties. Even Democrats applaud his leadership on the war.
But even Bush's advisers say the president's prime-time speech poses knotty political challenges that go much deeper than how much he should calibrate between his drives to subdue the two demons threatening America: al-Qaida and the recession.
In fact, while White House officials said it was a given that Bush would repeatedly invoke his determination to create jobs and to rid the world of "evildoers," the looming questions were over what words he might not utter.
Will he dare mention the Enron Corp., whose top executives were close to Bush and other administration officials? (Bush advisers said they were considering a reference to corporate irresponsibility.)
Will he mention Osama bin Laden, even though Bush has still not made good on his vow to catch him "dead or alive"? (Bush advisers said they would emphasize that there can be no wavering from the war on terrorism.)
And as Americans tell pollsters that they are more unsettled about jobs than terrorists, will Bush put forth a convincing case that the economy is rebounding?
Bush's advisers said he would seek to turn his popularity as commander in chief into an asset in taming the recession. In something of a preview of the State of the Union, the president declared in a speech last week, "The truth of the matter is, the best thing I can do for the economy is to make sure the enemy doesn't hit us again."
White House officials said they hoped to highlight the war, and the heroes of Sept. 11, by including in the audience the interim Afghan leader, Hamid Karzai, as well as members of the military, police officers and firefighters.
Still, even Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, said it was not easy striking the appropriate tone. "This is a very difficult challenge because we're in the middle of a war," Rove said.
Rove said he was heartened that for Bush, "the gap between economic performance and war performance is modest."
Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the newly elected House Democratic whip, was not so sure that gap would remain narrow.
"He'll receive a hero's welcome; Congress is very generous to presidents when they come," Pelosi said of Bush's trip to the Capitol on Tuesday. "But we'll see if he demonstrates a concern for the workers by proposing a policy that promotes economic growth."