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President George W. Bush’s State of the Union speeches will be seen as critical moments in his presidency. In 2002, he identified an “axis of evil” that threatened the United States and the world. A year later, he used 16 words alleged to be proof of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons — that are now considered emblematic of his administration’s failures in Iraq. This year, Mr. Bush used his State of the Union address to try to retake the political initiative after midterm elections that gave Democrats control of Congress and the continuing debacle in Iraq dragged his popularity ratings to new lows. Mr. Bush must regain the confidence of the American people; his speech was unlikely to accomplish that objective.

Mr. Bush’s Tuesday night (U.S.-time) speech was historic for at least one reason: It began with the words “Madame Speaker” as he recognized the first woman speaker in the history of the House of Representatives, Ms. Nancy Pelosi. Ms. Pelosi sat behind the president, with Vice President Dick Cheney, a sign of the new bipartisan reality in Washington. Mr. Bush underscored the need for Democrats and Republicans to accept this new state of affairs and work together to solve the problems the country faces. The tone in Washington has been bitter and both sides have acknowledged that the rancor of the past must end; their readiness to do that remains uncertain. Mr. Bush remains “the decider” and the Democratic leadership in Congress was committed to completing its 100-hour agenda, even at the cost of bipartisanship. Neither attitude bodes well for cooperation in the two years remaining in the president’s term.

For Washington watchers, Mr. Bush’s speech contained few surprises. The first half was devoted to domestic issues, most of which have been touched upon in previous speeches and continue to defy resolution: the budget deficit, immigration, education, health care and energy security. Most of the proposals were either old or had been leaked to the press in advance: changing taxation on health care, raising fuel efficiency standards for automobiles to help cut U.S. dependence on foreign oil and social-security reform. Democrats declared the proposal for health care “dead on arrival,” they oppose drilling for oil in protected environments such as Alaska, and social-security reform was buried in the last congressional session. In one promising development, the administration signaled that it was thinking about shifting course on climate change. Mr. Bush’s recognition of “the serious challenge of climate change” was more than he had said in five previous State of the Union speeches, but that was all he said on the subject.

The second half of the speech tackled foreign-policy issues and much of that time was devoted to his plan to escalate the number of troops in Iraq, spelled out in a speech two weeks ago. He repeated his insistence that this was a fight the U.S. and the world could not afford to lose and called for patience and the time to let his strategy work. In a remarkable shift, Mr. Bush conceded that “This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we are in.” Yet, he insisted that “it is still within our power to shape the outcome of this battle. So let us find our resolve and turn events toward victory.”

That will be tough. Not only are Americans deeply divided by Iraq, but increasing numbers question the wisdom of sending more troops to the country. Nearly two-thirds disagree with the president’s policy and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle are declaring opposition to Mr. Bush’s decision.

Iraq was not the only foreign-policy issue in the president’s speech. While Mr. Bush no longer refers to the “axis of evil,” he did mention the nuclear ambitions of the governments of North Korea and Iran, and backed the international diplomacy that is intended to get them to reverse course. He reminded his audience that U.S. foreign policy “is more than a matter of war and diplomacy,” and promised to help fight hunger, poverty and disease. He is more likely to get bipartisan backing for those efforts.

Mr. Bush is a battler. He is a confident man with a demonstrated readiness to stay the course despite mounting opposition. That determination has served him well at times; he won re-election in 2004 by contrasting his steadfastness with the “flip flops” of his opponent. In his speech this week, Mr. Bush attempted again to draw on that image while reaching out to his opponents to join him in those efforts. The president seeks the high ground as he struggles to set the national agenda. It is unclear if he is truly ready to compromise. If he does not, the next two years will be painful for him, his party and the nation he leads.

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