Bush starts to sound like Gore, but energy can't take Iraq off centre stage
It was no small irony that President Bush seemed to be channelling Al Gore on energy policies on the very day that Mr Gore's documentary film on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, was nominated for an Oscar.
After several years of using war and terror as the defining themes of his State of the Union message, the president who came to office with little inclination towards foreign affairs tried to recast his presidency on Tuesday night with a notable emphasis on domestic issues. Indeed, the president was more than 3,100 words into his speech before his first invocation of Iraq.
He did spend considerable time on energy. And while he did not mention global warming specifically, he did emphasise a call to reduce US petrol usage by 20 per cent over 10 years.
Though he has mentioned energy independence in seven consecutive years, his proposals have advanced only sporadically. Now the president's tone is far closer to the man he denied the White House in 2000, with talk of hybrid vehicles, biodiesel and solar and wind energy.
The president also made pitches for changes in health care, education and immigration. Much of it had the ring of George W. Bush, circa September 10, 2001, which is to say an agenda focused tightly within America's borders.
But he confronts an older and more formidable reality: his presidency almost certainly seems destined to be defined by his stewardship of the war in Iraq.
His audience was much different this time as well, at least in terms of relative power.
Democrats, who for six years had in essence served as the loyal opposition, now hold effective veto power over anything the president sends up to Capitol Hill. And instead of having his ever-applauding wingmen of Dennis Hastert, as House Speaker, and Vice-President Dick Cheney, the president had new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi staring over his left shoulder.
In body language, and in words, the Democrats were sceptics. And now they have the votes to go with it. This might well mark the moment the president formally ceded control of the national agenda.
Presidents use their State of the Union addresses to try to shape national priorities in their own vision. By using the first half of his address talking about things close to home, the president signalled a new intention for the final two years of his term in office.
The early signs from Democrats showed their serious doubts about Mr Bush's sincerity.
In many important respects, Mr Bush really gave his State of the Union speech two weeks ago when he announced his plan to send 21,500 more troops into Iraq to try to halt the sectarian violence. And on that score, the president must also shore up support among Republicans, including Senator John Warner, a leading voice on military affairs who just a day ago rejected the Bush plan.
Democrats seem to be ever more vocal in their opposition, a viewpoint forcefully expressed by Virginia's other senator, the newly elected Democrat, Jim Webb, who delivered his party's response.
The president offered what in another context might be seen as a poetic appeal for bipartisanship. But if ever a twist was born of necessity this was it, and Democrats were not in a reciprocal mood.
Senator Webb seemed hostile, particularly on Iraq, a conflict he opposed even before the first shots were fired. A decorated marine in Vietnam, the son of a soldier, and the father of a marine now serving in Iraq, Senator Webb has a special credibility on military matters.
'This country has patiently endured a mismanaged war for nearly four years,' he said. 'The president took us into this war recklessly. We are now, as a nation, held hostage to the predictable - and predicted - disarray that has followed.'
The barbed tenor of Senator Webb's words sent a strong signal of just how much the centre of gravity has shifted in Washington, and how much the debate has shifted on Iraq. While the president was slow in coming to Iraq in his speech, he nonetheless devoted nearly half of his time to the war, with a now familiar narrative. That war, however, will occupy a much larger space in the history of his presidency.