Anyone hoping to sum up President George W. Bush's final State of the Union address in one sentence might turn to Stephen Sondheim's great song from the stage hit "Follies": "I'm Still Here."
Bush did what lame-duck presidents usually do: He reminded the country that as commander-in-chief and chief executive for another 12 months, he is still relevant.
The president's task is not easy when only about a third of the nation believes he is doing a good job and when most people are focused on the candidates to succeed him.. But Bush gave it his best shot, saying, "We have unfinished business before us, and the American people expect us to get it done."
Bush's relevance is underscored by the concern Americans have shown over disheartening economic news in recent months.
They are looking for action, not only from him but from Congress.
It's the Economy ... Again
Addressing the nation in a week when Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill are thrashing out an economic stimulus package, the president said, "The actions of the 110th Congress will affect the security and prosperity of our nation long after this session has ended."
Noting the difficulty of getting anything major accomplished in an election year, Bush added, "let us show our fellow Americans that we recognize our responsibilities and are determined to meet them. And let us show that Republicans and Democrats can compete for votes and cooperate for results at the same time."
Bush has emphasized for months that he believes the current economic troubles were only temporary, and he sounded that theme again tonight: "Our economy is undergoing a period of uncertainty. And at kitchen tables across our country, there is concern about our economic future. In the long run, Americans can be confident about our economic growth."
While acknowledging a governmental role in pumping up the economy, Bush touted his conservative principles by emphasizing there is also the need for Americans to help themselves: "To build a prosperous future, we must trust people with their own money and empower them to grow the economy."
No one who has followed his career will doubt that he was showing his preference for tax cuts and rebates over government works programs advocated by some Democrats.
The president also warned the Senate not to make changes in the stimulus agreement he reached last week with House Democrats: "The temptation will be to load up the bill. That would delay it or derail it, and neither option is acceptable."
Senate Democrats want to expand unemployment benefits beyond what Bush regards as acceptable.
Despite those differences, Democrats applauded when he spoke of the need to pass the stimulus bill quickly.
He also got a laugh from them when he spoke of his opposition to higher taxes: "Some in Washington argue that letting tax relief expire is not a tax increase. … Others have said they would personally be happy to pay higher taxes. I welcome their enthusiasm, and I am pleased to report that the IRS accepts both checks and money orders."
Taking Aim at Congressional Pork
He also fired a broadside at congressional spending measures pushed by Republicans as well as Democrats, earmarks aimed at helping a particular state, district or special interest, and stuffed into appropriations bills often at the last minute and without full congressional scrutiny: "The people's trust in their government is undermined by congressional earmarks."
Earlier, the president told ABC News' Ann Compton in an exclusive interview that during his address he would announce that "this year I'm going to veto any bill that doesn't cut 'em [earmarks] by 50 percent and will issue an Executive Order tomorrow to make it clear to agencies that that money will not be spent unless it's been voted on by the Congress."
Monday night, he said, "If these items are truly worth funding, the Congress should debate them in the open and hold a public votes."
Whatever members of Congress may really think about such openness, with the television cameras on them they applauded vigorously.
Although the president did not announce any bold new programs, he reminded the nation that he was able to get some of his programs enacted into law during his presidency, including his landmark education initiative, the controversial No Child Left Behind Act.
He also argued for ".two other pressing challenges that I have raised repeatedly before this body, and that this body has failed to address: entitlement spending and immigration. Every member in this chamber knows that spending on entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is growing faster than we can afford."
But the president also knows that in an election year there is zero chance of enacting changes in entitlement programs.
As for immigration, he said, "Illegal immigration is complicated, but it can be resolved. And it must be resolved in a way that upholds both our laws and our highest ideals."
But if that contentious issue is going to "be resolved," Bush knows it will not happen during his administration.
On both immigration and Social Security, the president did try to push legislation through Congress during his second term.
But when historians write those chapters, the best he can hope for is that they will give him credit for taking on, albeit in vain, difficult and substantive problems.
The president took special note of the victims of Katrina on the Gulf Coast and said, "Tonight, I am pleased to announce that in April we will host this year's North American summit of Canada, Mexico and the United States in the great city of New Orleans."
Iraq: Where Things Stand
The nation's present focus on the economy was reflected in the president's decision to devote the first half of his address to economic and domestic issues. A year ago, when he gave a State of the Union, Americans were consumed with Iraq.
When he did finally turn to Iraq tonight, he said, "While the enemy is still dangerous and more work remains, the American and Iraqi surges have achieved results few of us could have imagined just one year ago. … Some may deny the surge is working, but among the terrorists, there is no doubt. Al Qaeda is on the run in Iraq, and this enemy will be defeated."
Looking ahead to his remaining months as commander-in-chief, he said, "Our objective in the coming year is to sustain and build on the gains we made in 2007, while transitioning to the next phase of our strategy. American troops are shifting from leading operations to partnering with Iraqi forces, and eventually to a protective overwatch mission."
Turning to troop drawdowns, Bush said, "One Army brigade combat team and one Marine Expeditionary Unit have already come home and will not be replaced. In the coming months, four additional brigades and two Marine battalions will follow suit. Taken together, this means more than 20,000 of our troops are coming home."
That won standing applause from both sides of the aisle, as even many Republicans want to see larger reductions in troop levels.
Watchful Eye on Iran
In reviewing foreign policy and the war on terror, Bush took special note of Iran.
Although a recent National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003, the president has been concerned that the United States and its allies could be lulled into a false sense of security.
Monday, while telling the people of Iran that "We have no quarrel with you," he said, "our message to the leaders of Iran is also clear: Verifiably suspend your nuclear enrichment, so negotiations can begin. … But above all, know this: America will confront those who threaten our troops, we will stand by our allies, and we will defend our vital interests in the Persian Gulf."
Democrats chose Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius,to deliver their response. Her admirers say she has the ability to appeal to Republicans, and bipartisanship was one of her major themes tonight : "In this time, normally reserved for the partisan response, I hope to offer something more: an American response. … There is a chance, Mr. President, in the next 357 days, to get real results and give the American people renewed optimism that their challenges are the top priority."
The tone of both the president's address and the governor's response reflects how chastened both parties are by the nation's economic woes.
Republicans and Democrats alike have decided that worried Americans have little patience for political gamesmanship in Washington.
Earlier in the day, the veil of bipartisanship slipped a bit when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said, "The only thing the president does well is frighten the American people."
But on Monday evening, the gloves were on, not off. It was all so civilized. And so unusual.