At least for style, President Bush put in a fairly strong performance in delivering his State of the Union address. He appeared measured and confident, but not as cocksure as in some previous speeches to Congress.
Whether one liked the president's message doesn't really mean a lot. Even as he spoke, House members were mentally jumping ahead to other issues and concerns. Call it the beginning of the major phase of the inevitable "lame duck" presidency, but also the start of much more.
Those preoccupied House Republicans were thinking about their impending leadership vote, and about how to rustle up a legislative package with their mark on it. They need one that more aggressively tackles the issues that are starting to haunt them.
They know the president's approval ratings are so-so. They aren't holding their breath that retaining majority power after the November elections will happen because of a proactive agenda from the White House.
At a meeting that is likely in the comings days, the House Republican leadership will probably be forced to confront the need to consider major overhauls in their approach to taxing and spending.
Illegal immigration probably will be a big agenda item, too. It certainly is with the voters. Many polls say this issue is the one that the biggest percentage of Americans has the greatest interest in.
Feathers likely will fly behind the closed doors of that House meeting. In the days following, the press leaks will commence, and then we'll get a better read on the specifics. Hints from the recent public comments of some of the major players suggest that there will be long and perhaps heated discussions about the need for the GOP House leadership to craft some kind of novel policy ideas. Without them, holding Congress in November could become a desperate endeavor.
The Democrats are concentrating on the Senate. Many moderate Democrats were embarrassed by the pitiful attempt to block a vote on Samuel Alito's confirmation as a Supreme Court justice. Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) looked silly and impotent when he dashed back to Washington to try to spearhead an effort to nix a vote on Alito. Ditto for the stereotypical behavior of old-guard Democrats like Sen. Ted Kennedy (Mass.).
The antics of Kerry, Kennedy and others looked like naked insolence when one considers the comparative ease with which Bill Clinton's Supreme Court nominee, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, passed through the confirmation process.
The fact is that the American public is depressed, for whatever reason. Surveys show most Americans feel the nation is headed in the wrong direction. This is despite our strong stock market, tolerable employment levels and economic growth, and the absence of a second major terrorist attack (keep knocking on wood).
For better or worse, the president's reaction to this state of affairs is to pursue the issues and the philosophy that matter to him rather than aim to score in the public opinion polls. So he preaches globalism and spreading democracy throughout the world at the very moment that more and more Americans are telling pollsters they prefer laws that put American citizens and their jobs first, and that they have little stomach for more armed conflicts, or even for the continuation of the one in Iraq.
Polls show that most Americans want Congress in the hands of the Democrats. But the Democrats have no message that will transform polling numbers into votes. The days of the Ted Kennedys and Chuck Schumers are slowly coming to an end. And the Democrats' leader in the Senate, Harry Reid of Nevada, may become the focus of major negative press in the coming months, as reporters start examining potential Democratic connections to the Abramoff lobbying scandal, so far a primarily Republican problem.
So the clock ticks. What agenda will the House GOP embrace in an effort to avoid a huge slide in November? Will Democrats seize their apparent opportunity to take the House or the Senate back? If so, what possible unifying issue or public face will they offer? Hillary Clinton? Only to select audiences. Barack Obama of Illinois? Perhaps. John Kerry again? Surely not.
It seems the only listeners to Bush's speech in the House chamber Tuesday night who could sit back with some degree of security were the members of the Supreme Court.
Maybe that's why Bush was better than usual in his delivery. He knew that, regardless of this year's midterm elections, he had already scored what may be looked back on as his greatest victory -- the assurance of a conservative high court.