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Changing the Subject

Dotty Lynch is CBSNews.com's Political Points columnist. E-mail your questions and comments to Political Points



Last October, when President Bush was still fighting for Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was still front-page news, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich offered the some advice. "What the White House has to do is simply focus calmly on where do they want to be in 60 or 90 days. What is the state of the union going to look like?" Gingrich said on CBS News' Face the Nation.

"My prediction is that by the State of the Union, the president will be back in his, in the form that he governed for five years, and my hope is that by the State of the Union, you'll see a very reform and change-oriented Republican Party offering some very bold proposals."

By most accounts the president was forward-looking in his State of the Union speech but not particularly bold or reform-minded. In fact, it was a speech with a very conciliatory tone with a number of mom-and-apple-pie lines about supporting troops, fixing entitlements and doing more for math and science education that forced the Democrats to rise and applaud far more often than they had intended.

The boldest moment probably came in the form of the sound bite that Americans are "addicted to oil." The line had a bit of shock value coming from the Texas oilman whose administration has been quite close to oil company executives and whose family has been close to many foreign oil producers. Bush went on with a laundry list of new proposals (and some not so new retreads from his 2005 address) for developing alternative energy sources including ethanol, solar and nuclear power.

The Democrats saw that one coming and launched an attack charging the Bush administration with being in bed with Big Oil. "Unlike President Bush's implication, there is nothing wrong with Americans, there's something wrong with America's leaders who are addicted to oil money. The Republican addiction is clear from the $14 billion in oil and energy giveaways Republicans passed while cutting nearly $14 billion in student aid, even as those corporations are making astronomical record profits," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

We will know soon if this energy debate has "legs," as reporters say, but the major benefit a president has from the State of the Union speech is that he controls the microphone. The CBS News poll of people who watched the speech, an audience which skewed Republican, found that 77 percent liked it and a majority felt his proposals would make their lives better. While President Bush dealt with some of his controversial policies, especially the war in Iraq, the plight of New Orleans and the charges of corruption surrounding the Republicans in Congress were minor moments in the 52-minute address.

Controlling the pictures as well as the microphone is the second presidential advantage. It is now ritual that the first lady will be surrounded by symbolic guests. On Tuesday night those included a young female leader in the parliament of Afghanistan wearing a headscarf and an injured soldier with her bomb-sniffing dog. But Iraq War protester Cindy Sheehan, a guest of Democratic Rep. Lynn Woolsey, was declared out of bounds and put under arrest for wearing an anti-war T-shirt.

The president is off Wednesday to two states, Tennessee and Minnesota, which have very competitive Senate races, and he will try to keep attention focused on his agenda. The Democrats have a big protest planned in Opryland about health care and the president's Health Savings Accounts and will try to get their voices heard now that the big moment has passed. The 2006 campaign has begun and the outcome may depend on who controls the microphone for the rest of the year.

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