WASHINGTON -- The scaled-down, narrowly focused domestic agenda President Bush presented to Congress and the nation last week had the 2006 midterm elections written all over it.
Abandoning his post-re-election ambitions to enact sweeping reforms aimed at preventing Social Security's future bankruptcy and simplifying a fiendishly complicated tax code, Bush has downsized to focus on three strategic, pocketbook issues that will be decisive in this year's campaigns for control of Congress.
The president justifiably took credit in his State of the Union address for 4-1/2 years of uninterrupted economic growth and the creation of more than 4 million new jobs. But he also proposed a package of new or revised economic initiatives that target three overriding bread-and-butter complaints by voters who, polls show, disapprove of his handling of the economy.
They include skyrocketing energy costs for gasoline and home heating bills that have hit record levels; mounting health insurance and medical expenses for businesses and workers alike; fear of future job losses in an era of corporate downsizing in a fiercely competitive global economy.
The White House, guided by political mastermind Karl Rove, narrowed Bush's 2006 domestic agenda to these mega-issues for three reasons.
First, White House polling shows they are among the voters' biggest anxieties, especially in battleground states where congressional and gubernatorial seats are up for grabs in a midterm election when second-term presidents historically lose clout and seats in Congress.
Second, election years are usually not known for getting much done, so it would be fruitless for Bush to send up a full plate of proposals that aren't going anywhere and offer no political dividend.
Third, the White House learned a painful lesson last year from Ronald Reagan's presidential playbook: Spend your political capital frugally on a small number of achievable, politically pivotal proposals that respond to the nation's body politic. Interviews with independent pollsters and Republican officials last week showed that the White House's refocused agenda is right on target.
"These are the key domestic issues that voters are thinking about and they want some action, so Bush was right to address them," said polling guru John Zogby.
"Our polls show high anxiety in the battleground states on these economic issues. Voters are concerned about keeping their jobs, their health benefits, if they still have them, and energy costs" that are spiraling through the roof, Zogby told me.
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