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Address will detail Bush's plans for Social Security, foreign policy

WASHINGTON—President Bush will stand at the apex of his power Wednesday night when he delivers the first State of the Union address of his second term to a joint session of Congress, and he will lay out an ambitious agenda for change, especially for Social Security, the biggest and most popular federal program in history.

Bush will stride into the House of Representatives brimming with confidence and enhanced political strength stemming from his solid re-election victory in November and Sunday's stunning display of democracy in action in Iraq, which he takes as validation of his oft-maligned strategy there.

"He's close enough to an election victory," said Ross Baker, a congressional scholar at Rutgers University. "He's been proven prophetic on Iraq. ... There is some evidence that his policy is beginning to pay off. You may see a more energized and triumphant administration."

Bush likes to say that, by his re-election, voters gave him political capital. Wednesday night he'll outline how he wants to spend it.

He'll devote much of the speech to selling his Social Security plan, particularly his proposal to create personal-investment accounts, aides said. However, Bush probably will omit key details on how the new system would work in favor of trying to improve the political climate for change as Congress begins wrestling over what to do. Critics have said that Bush's plan could add trillions of dollars to the national debt and force cuts in future Social Security benefits; those points aren't likely to be emphasized.

"He will offer details on how to move this debate forward," said a senior administration official who briefed reporters anonymously to keep the spotlight on Bush. "This is not legislation or every aspect of how the reforms should take place, but it will advance the ball. ... Proposals on the table, the status quo, is benefits cuts or massive tax increases. What the president will say is there are steps we can take to make it better than the status quo."

Other domestic-policy priorities Bush is expected to call for include making the tax cuts passed during his first term permanent; overhauling immigration law; and limiting damage awards from civil lawsuits, especially for medical malpractice.

On foreign policy, Bush will cite Iraq's election Sunday to proclaim his policy there a success and urge Congress and Americans to stay the course and support Iraq as it moves toward democracy.

Bush also will ask them to back his efforts to expand democracy throughout the Middle East. And he will call for European allies to work with him in persuading Israelis and Palestinians to return to the so-called "road map" plan for peace.

"The president has articulated many times before, having democracies emerge in the heart of the Middle East—both in Palestine, as well as Iraq—sends an enormous signal to other people in the region that democracy is the path to success," the senior administration official said. "And I think the president will talk at length about that."

Bush also is expected to call for diplomatic outreach to Iran and for continuing six-party talks with North Korea. Bush labeled both nations part of the "axis of evil" three years ago, and his emphasis now on diplomacy toward them reflects the strain his wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and against terror have imposed on America's military and relations with allies around the world.

Republican congressional leaders hope the success of Iraq's elections will give the president political momentum to promote his domestic agenda, particularly his plan to overhaul Social Security.

"When you show the kind of moral leadership this president has shown, people will follow," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. "He says we have a grand opportunity—let's take advantage of it."

The Iraqi elections have clearly boosted morale for Republicans in Congress.

"Having some good news and having some positive things going on with administration policies makes life a little easier," said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., a member of the Republican leadership. "We haven't had a lot of good news there and this good news certainly doesn't hurt his ability to get his domestic agenda through."

Still, Iraq and Social Security are issues worlds apart.

Many Republicans in Congress aren't ready to embrace Bush's plan to allow workers to transfer a portion of their payroll taxes into new personal investment accounts.

Democrats are adamantly opposed to any transfer of payroll taxes.

Even as Republicans touted Bush's enhanced political standing, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters that he expects all 44 Democrats to stand against Bush's proposal. That would be enough to kill the bill under Senate rules.

"I feel confident," Reid said. "President Bush should forget about privatizing Social Security. It will not happen. And the sooner he comes to that realization, the better off we are."

Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, an anti-deficit hawk, warned that Republicans could deceive themselves into thinking they're too powerful politically and attempt to act unilaterally without Democratic help.

"The thing that really concerns me is that when you think you're the strongest, you're the weakest," Voinovich said. "We really have to work on bipartisanship as much as possible."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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