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Wednesday, 30 January, 2002, 18:51 GMT
Politics as usual in Washington
President Bush
President Bush: Up against Michael Jordan for viewers' attention
By the BBC's Mike Fox in Washington

You would expect that the crowd at the Front Page restaurant in downtown Washington would be keen to watch one of the most important State of the Union speeches in modern times.

The walls of the restaurant are decorated with newspapers from key moments in history, from the Titanic sinking to the assassination of President Kennedy, and the Nixon impeachment.

Yet Michael Jordan's last minute efforts to win a tightly fought and exciting basketball game for the Washington Wizards threatened to keep the speech off the bar's television screens.

In the end the barman did switch to Capitol Hill, but loud conversations continued all round the room.

The home front

Even when the president was introduced and was cheered for his memorable line that the union was stronger than ever, many people in the bar continued to chatter and kept only half an eye on the speech.

It was a significant contrast to his joint address to the House on 20 September. The crowds in both this bar and the one where I was watching in New York City were silent as they listened to the words of their commander-in-chief.

He did do it for me when he stayed on the point with the war on terrorism and everything, but he failed to address social issues

Young man in Washington

The noise level dropped somewhat as people concentrated a bit more on his strategy on the war on terrorism.

Most people kept at least half an ear on their leader - there was widespread approval for his handling of the war on terrorism - but he scored less well on domestic issues.

One woman told me: "I don't vote for him normally so I'm not usually a big supporter of George W, but I think he's done a good job since 9/11, so I will honour him for that."

A young man standing at the bar agreed - up to a point: "He did do it for me when he stayed on the point with the war on terrorism and everything, but he failed to address social issues."

"People wanted to hear about how the economy is going south and he didn't address that properly. Toys R Us is closing 64 stores but he didn't talk about that. I think he failed in his domestic policy but on the war on terrorism I think he did an excellent job," the man added.

Criticism and indifference

A group of four friends had followed the speech closely - they also supported the main themes of the speech, but one woman had some trenchant criticism.

"Expectations for George Bush are so low, but he met those expectations. He's talking about spending more on defence, but also having tax cuts," she said, asking, "Where's that money going to come from? Is it coming form our pockets later? That's the big question."

But across the street a pavement bar was doing brisk business, as people decided to make the most of an unseasonably warm evening.

The speech was a world away for them - no television screens of course, and none of those outside had seen the speech.

One man told me he'd made other plans. "And anyway I didn't see the point in watching, it's all staged anyway, and we pretty much knew what he was going to say."

It's a sign that away from the war, politics and people's attitudes seem relatively unchanged.

See also:

30 Jan 02 | Americas
'Suspects' condemn Bush speech
30 Jan 02 | Americas
Analysis: Bush policy uncertain
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