President Bush says his State of the Union address will insist his administration is successfully confronting the nation's problems, while laying out an agenda focused on guiding the economy to even better times and aggressively waging the war on terror.
"We will continue to confront the challenges of our time, and we will continue to make America a more secure, more prosperous and more hopeful place," Mr. Bush said as he gave a stripped-down preview of his Tuesday night speech in his weekly radio address Saturday.
But after rising in public support following the capture of Saddam Hussein, the President gives his State of the Union message next week with a decidedly less positive audience, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll released Saturday.
His approval rating of 50% matches his lowest approval ratings ever, and the largest number ever – 45% - disapprove.
This decline (from 60% approval the week after Saddam's capture) comes after former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's criticisms of the Administration in a book and in interviews, and after continuing attacks on American troops in Iraq.
Overall, most Americans say things in the country are worse now than they were five years ago. 57% say things are worse, while 21% say they're better.
But they are more optimistic than pessimistic about the future. Looking ahead five years, 45% say things will be better than they are today, while 26% think things will be worse.
There is other bad news for the President:
Saturday's radio address wasn't the only way the White House hinted at the messages Mr. Bush plans to deliver during one of his most important speeches in the run-up to the November presidential elections.
Press secretary Scott McClellan offered some highlights Friday in two press briefings and was joined by another White House official who described the speech's preparation on condition of anonymity.
As described, the address will resemble in parts the one Mr. Bush delivers at campaign fund-raisers in which he broadly celebrates accomplishments of his administration while making the argument for staying in office past 2004 to complete work on uncompleted agenda items.
"We're meeting our priorities at home and abroad," McClellan said. "There are big issues facing the American people, and this is a time that requires leadership to bring the country together around great goals and great challenges. It's a time to unite the American people around big priorities."
White House aides began working on the address in late October. By Friday, when Mr. Bush took part in high-level editing, the speech was in the "double-digit draft stage," the official said.
More fine-tuning sessions were planned over the weekend at Camp David, Md., with formal run-throughs in the White House theater on Monday and Tuesday.
Among the accomplishments Mr. Bush was expected to tout, according to McClellan: $1.7 trillion in tax cuts over 10 years that the White House credits for the improving economy; a sweeping education law that imposes testing mandates on schools; a 10-year $400 billion Medicare overhaul that provides prescription drug coverage to the elderly and injects private insurers into the government program; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that toppled hostile regimes, promoted democracy and confronted terrorism dangers; and the agreement with Libya to eliminate its weapons of mass destruction.
"America continues to wage a relentless campaign against terrorists who threaten our country. ... These terrorists are still dangerous, and we will stay on the hunt until they are destroyed," Mr. Bush said in his radio remarks Saturday. "Here at home, we continue to build prosperity and economic security for our people."
Democrats were having none of it.
Rep. Michael Michaud of Maine criticized the Bush administration Saturday for not being in touch with working Americans.
In the Democratic response to the weekly Bush radio address, Michaud took aim at the administration for the lack of job growth, the Bush tax cuts and what he characterized as a flawed Medicare prescription drug plan.
His response aired Saturday on major radio networks. It was taped on Friday.
"In the last week we have heard a lot about what Republicans plan to do in the name of the American people," Michaud said. "But sometimes I wonder if anyone in this administration has actually met any of the people they claim to be working for - people like the hardworking, struggling families I represent in northern Maine."
Michaud criticized the administration's tax cuts, which he said disproportionately help the wealthy. He also charged that the administration and the House Republican leadership have forced their agenda on Congress.
McClellan said that while Mr. Bush would propose some new initiatives, much of the wish list going to Congress will look familiar, topped by a request for lawmakers not to let the already-enacted tax cuts expire as planned.
The president also was to call for allowing younger workers to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes in the stock market and address the rising cost of health care by capping awards in medical malpractice lawsuits.
He also is expected to call for transforming what he views as ineffective government job-training programs in order to give workers skills for the jobs the economy is actually producing, and invigorate federal efforts on behalf of the needy by opening up more spending to religious groups.
All of those ideas have been frequent Bush themes, but have received little support in Congress so far.