Morning Political Note: Jan. 28

The anticipated soaring rhetoric of, and rousing response to, the SOTU will momentarily draw many eyes away from the undergirding budget numbers that will come out a week from now.

The New York Times ' Dick Stevenson previews that release with characteristic understatement, albeit right on the front page: "The budget that President Bush will send to Congress a week from Monday strays far from the agenda of small government and fiscal conservatism that the administration advocated on taking office a year ago."

"It will propose a spending increase of around 9 percent for next year, more than any big-government Democrat would dare to put on the table. It will cast aside all the promises about maintaining budget surpluses and paying down the national debt that both parties made in recent years, and instead will project at least several years of budget deficits."

USA Today adds: "Bush has made clear to White House staff that he does not want to repeat the mistake made by his father, former president George Bush, leading up to his State of the Union address in 1992. For two months, the elder Bush deflected questions about his economic strategy by saying he would have 'some new ideas' in his speech. But the speech failed to live up to its buildup." ( )

"House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt will give his party's response. He is expected to voice strong support for the war effort while trying to pin the blame for the continued sluggish economy on Bush's leadership."

We don't know how much rehearsing the president already has done, or whether internal debates are still going on at this late hour about what to leave in and what to take out, but here's a list of things to look for in the SOTU — some obvious, some long-range fliers, but all in our patented (well, not really) clip-'n'-save format:

1. Who'll sit with Mrs. Bush, besides Afghan interim leader Karzai? (We know a few governors will be in town, including the embattled Acting Governor of Massachusetts.)

2. Will the president utter the word "Enron?" (Andy Card on Sunday made that seem unlikely.)

3. Word count on use of "workers."

4. How soon or how far into the speech does the president bring up the education package, and how strongly does the president stress his as-yet-unattended to, core campaign promises of Social Security reform, prescription drug benefits, and faith-based initiatives?

5. Does the president mention finding money for fixing the individual alternative minimum tax, in order to live up to his promise of tax relief for every American?

6. With the expectation that Cheney will attend, what Cabinet member doesn't? Thus elevating the traditional Cabinet member in absentia role to its highest-profile status ever?

7. Does the president expand the war/anti-terrorism rhetoric beyond Afghanistan to other countries?

See below for more SOTU preview.

On Cheney and the GAO, there is still some confusion about whether the White House is actually asserting executive privilege or not — and, if they are, how solid that claim is. The Administration appears to have cleverly asserted at least a pseudo claim, to try to bring the documents under that penumbra (we throw that legal word in there to signal that we are faking it a bit on this) without actually using the phrase in shielding the documents, because of its Watergate-y overtones.

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