January 29, 2006 6:16 pm

Bush speech to offer vision of world leadership

President George W. Bush is expected on Tuesday to try to retake the initiative in the Washington political debate, in a speech that is expected to be long on optimism and short on detailed policy proposals.

Mr Bush is expected to deliver an upbeat message on the war in Iraq in his annual State of the Union address, pointing to progress being made in the country, a subject he has addressed in a number of recent speeches.

White House aides have characterised the speech as one that will lay out his approach and views on the importance of US world leadership and be visionary and thematic rather than deal with policy specifics.

In an interview with CBS television on Sunday, Mr Bush said the low level of public support for his policies in Iraq showed that the public had been distracted from achievements made in the country by images of violence on the news. He said he intended to play the role of “educator in chief” as well as “commander in chief”.

He declined to comment on a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, but said the administration had a “strategy to victory” and hoped that US troop numbers in Iraq would fall this year. He again defended eavesdropping on US citizens outside the 1978 law that governs domestic telephone and e-mail surveillance for intelligence purposes.

Mr Bush reiterated that the US would cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority if Hamas – the party that has won a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament – did not renounce violence or the destruction of Israel as its policy goal.

In a recent speech, Karl Rove, Mr Bush’s top political adviser, called for an aggressive approach on national security, in which Republicans characterised the war in Iraq as a campaign led by a president with a special mission to defend US national security in the face of Democrat opposition.

Opinion polls have shown Mr Bush’s public approval ratings remain low, because of concerns about Iraq, the economy and high energy prices, and following the poor handling of the hurricanes that hit New Orleans and the surrounding area last year.

Howard Dean, Democratic party chairman, said on Fox television on Sunday: “Americans think the state of the union is a pretty difficult state right now.”

In contrast to a year ago, at the start of his second term, Mr Bush is not expected to dwell on his plans for Social Security reform, which ran into trouble on Capitol Hill with opposition from Republicans as well as Democrats.

In setting out priorities in his speech, he may also confirm that plans for ambitious tax reform have been shelved – though he is expected to put forward proposals aimed at helping Americans to pay for healthcare.

He is also expected to make optimistic comments on the US economy – unbowed by a report on Friday that suggested it slowed sharply at the end of last year – and to endorse policies aimed at improving the competitiveness of US industries.

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