Donald Lambro

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.

GOP officials and party strategists, who worried that last year's erratic, unfocused and at times listless White House operation signaled losses in 2006, were singing Bush's praises last week. "These are issues that clearly reflect domestic needs that Americans are uneasy about," Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas told me.

"This is not a speech where he laid forth lofty and idealistic visions, but instead presented tactical and specific reforms to address areas where (Republicans) must improve," said the chairman of the National Governors Association.

Bush's proposals, many of them revisions of earlier recommendations, are long-term in their application and results, but all are achievable in the coming years because of ongoing advances in U.S. technology.

On energy independence: increased incentives for hybrid cars using a new generation of batteries and alternative energy sources like ethanol and other bio-produced fuels; more use of nuclear power and tapping into natural gas reserves in the Gulf; construction of new gasoline refineries that would sharply increase supply over demand and thus reduce prices.

Affordable health care: expansion of tax-free health savings accounts, worker tax credits for medical costs, regulatory relief and tax breaks that will help small business provide health insurance benefits, and medical liability restrictions to curb the rapid rise in health care costs, hospital and doctors' operating overhead and insurance premiums.

Competitiveness and jobs in the global economy: Increase federal R&D funding on the physical sciences and make it permanent; new incentives to expand the number of teachers in advance placement courses; accelerate graduates in math and science.

Some of these reforms could yield results in the next few years. Others will take much longer. But these and other ideas are now on the legislative drawing board to show voters they are being tackled head on. Some will come up for votes this year.

With all the sound and fury coming out of Washington these days about Iraq, the bedrock economic concerns of ordinary Americans can easily get overlooked here.

But out in the real world it is a different matter. Manufacturing job losses in places like Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio, and rising property taxes in Democratic blue states like Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Rhode Island are at the center of political debate.

"Yes, there is a war going on, but at this point it may not be serious enough as an issue to override bread-and-butter issues like gas prices and the cost of health insurance and jobs," said pollster Clay Richards of the Quinnipiac University poll, whose surveys are picking up increasing voter angst over these economic issues.


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.