Mr. Bush: Surprise Us With Brevity, Big Goals, Bipartisanship

Finally, he should surprise the world and energize his base by pledging himself to work tirelessly for one of the two huge issues which Democrats assume he'll never dare to touch: entitlement reform to protect the government's future solvency, and/or radical, across-the-board tax simplification. In his State of the Union, he should get the country to acknowledge the worthiness of his broad purposes -- shoring up Social Security and Medicare to prevent their future collapse, and rescuing the overburdened American taxpayer from the nightmarishly complex process of filing returns and trying to dodge taxes. Even if the Democrats block all progress in this direction, he will still benefit by forcing them to respond to his (conservative) reform agenda.

3. Push Joint Accomplishment in Place of Partisan Manuevers

I would like to hear President Bush congratulate the Democrats on their success in the elections and their dynamic leadership during the opening days of Congress, showing that it's still possible for the system to move quickly and get things done.

"You've shown unity and dedication in setting the agenda for the first hundred hours," he could proclaim. "Now let us work together to set a joint agenda for the next hundred weeks." (And yes, Bush does have that long before he turns over the White House to his successor.)

In that context, he can place himself above partisan politics. After all, he might be the only person in the House chambers during that joint session who's never had a moment's thought of running for the White House in 2008 (the Constitution makes it impossible for him).

With Hillary, Obama, McCain, Kerry, Dodd, Biden, Hagel, Brownback and many other would-be candidates in the audience for his speech, the commentators and TV cameras will focus on them and attempt to discuss the address in terms of their prospects in the primaries. Bush should ask us all to forgo that temptation: to concentrate instead on working together to make the most of the two years left in his term rather than pushing all the problems onto the desk of the next president.

"Many of you tonight might feel tempted to look ahead to the next election in 2008," he might say. "But it's more important that we look back at the elections of 2004 and 2006, and the promises we made to the people to act decisively in their behalf. Keeping faith with the votes they've already cast is more urgent and important than angling for support in some future campaign that hasn't even started."

A few days before his big speech, President Bush received an encouraging sign that despite the increasingly vicious criticism of his leadership on Iraq, a pitch for bipartisanship and cooperation might find some eager support from the opposition party. The House Democrats invited Bush to join them at their February private retreat in Colonial Williamsburg and the president promptly agreed. It's a small gesture, perhaps, but if he alludes to it in his speech -- mentioning other battling leaders (Jefferson, Madison, Patrick Henry, George Mason, George Washington) who once managed to work together in Williamsburg in even more trying circumstances -- the little signal might convey a big message.

One final factor may help facilitate a successful speech by the president on Tuesday night.

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