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Bush Prepares to Deliver State of Union Address


President Bush has gone through about two dozen drafts of the State of the Union speech he'll deliver tomorrow night. Mr. Bush says he will speak about elevating the tone in Washington. But that will be no easy task in a midterm election year. The president is entering his sixth year in office, and, as NPR's David Greene reports, historically that's been a rough stretch for chief executives.

DAVID GREENE reporting:


When President Bush walks into the House chamber tomorrow night, here's what's stacked against him. Even members of his own party are looking past the legislative season this year to election day in November. The president's approval ratings are well below 50 percent, and they're beginning to weigh down his party as well. Fred Greenstein, a presidential historian at Princeton University, says there's precedent for what Mr. Bush is experiencing in his sixth year as president.

Dr. FRED GREENSTEIN (Princeton University): Well, it's a little bit like a midlife crisis. How do you - can you cope with it creatively, or are you going to just sort of fold up and curl up and go away?

GREENE: Greenstein says there's a burnout factor for chief executives and for the public, and that makes it hard to offer bold new programs at home at this stage. Meanwhile, world events can occupy more and more of a president's attention. That was the lesson of 1966, when Lyndon Johnson was in the sixth year of the tenure in office he shared with John F. Kennedy. Johnson argued passionately that the nation could pay for a war in Vietnam and for his social programs.

President LYNDON B. JOHNSON: This nation is mighty enough, its society is healthy enough, its people are strong enough to pursue our goals in the rest of the world while still building a great society here at home.

GREENE: But Johnson had to acknowledge that the war was not close to ending.


President JOHNSON: The days may become months, and the months may become years. But we will stay as long as aggression commands us to battle.

GREENE: But the nation did not share Johnson's commitment to his policies, and Republicans made huge gains in the 1966 midterm elections that hobbled the remainder of his presidency. Two decades later, in January of 1986, Ronald Reagan was entering his sixth year. Foreign policy again was front and center.

President RONALD REAGAN: Our negotiators in Geneva have proposed a radical cut in offensive forces by each side, with no cheating. They have made clear that Soviet compliance with the letter and spirit of agreements is essential. If the Soviet government wants an agreement that truly reduces nuclear arms, there will be such an agreement.

GREENE: Princeton's Greenstein says Reagan would seize that moment to hasten the end of the Soviet Union and the Cold War. But in 1986 the voters' concerns were elsewhere, and Reagan's party lost control of the Senate. The next two-term president was Bill Clinton, who entered his sixth year with the country riding an economic boom.

President BILL CLINTON: Because of the hard work and high purpose of the American people, these are good times for America.

GREENE: But they were not good times for Bill Clinton, who would end that year by getting impeached. Back in his State of the Union speech in January, he never mentioned the two words that were already gripping the rest of Washington, Monica Lewinsky. Instead, he steered clear of big new initiatives, either foreign or domestic, packing the speech with countless smaller focus proposals instead.

President CLINTON: Tonight I propose the first ever national effort to reduce class size in the early grades.

GREENE: President Bush may find value in the lessons of his recent two-term predecessors, but the past few months have already taught him the key lesson of second terms. As a president's time in office lengthens, his ability to set an agenda and drive world events diminishes, and world events increasingly come to drive his agenda.

David Greene, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.