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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 January 2007, 04:45 GMT
Bush fights to stop ticking clock
By Richard Allen Greene
BBC News, Washington

President Bush delivers his 2007 State of the Union address
Mr Bush aimed for a line between conciliation and confrontation
The minute hand on the Doomsday Clock ticked two minutes closer to midnight last week, as the scientists who run the symbolic timepiece added climate change to the list of threats to civilisation.

George W Bush - for all his aides' denials - must feel as if a similar clock is ticking down over his presidency.

As he began to deliver his latest State of the Union address, less than two years remained until he hands the Oval Office over to his successor.

His party suffered serious setbacks in elections last November, losing control of both houses of Congress for the first time since he took office.

And his own personal popularity is in the cellar, with twice as many Americans disapproving of his performance as approving of it.

So his speech had something of the feel of a man grabbing the hands of the clock and trying to hold them still - or even turn them back.

Effort at outreach

To do that, the normally combative president needed to do something he has not done in years: reach out to the Democrats and build common cause with them.

And he made an effort at conciliation from the opening words of his 50-minute speech.

We must have the will to face difficult challenges and determined enemies and the wisdom to face them together
President Bush

In acknowledging that the Democrats had taken control, the president used the words "we", "us" or "our" 17 times in seven sentences.

He summed up his outreach with the statement: "Our citizens don't much care which side of the aisle we sit on - as long as we are willing to cross that aisle when there is work to be done."

From there, he tossed out a handful of proposals that many Democrats could support: balance the budget, clamp down on pork-barrel projects that benefit individual lawmakers' districts, renew his signature education programme.

It almost felt like the old days of Bill Clinton, who was known for seizing his opponents' ideas - a strategy known as triangulation.

Controversial suggestions

But once he had run through those offerings, he moved into more dangerous waters.

He proposed tweaking the tax code to encourage people to take out private health insurance - a suggestion which leading Democrats have already declared dead on arrival.

President Bush and Speaker Pelosi shake hands before the 2007 State of the Union
Mrs Pelosi has the upper hand in Washington now
He spoke in general terms about diversifying America's energy supply, as he does every year - putting fuel in the context of security rather than the environment, as he does every year.

There, too, the Democrats look unwilling to let him have his way.

And then he devoted much of the rest of his speech to Iraq and what he calls the war on terror.

He struck a curious balance - his tone almost pleading for Congress and the nation to rally behind his unpopular plan to send more troops, but his words refusing to yield anything substantive to his critics.

After the speech, Democrats practically fell over themselves in the rush to condemn his stance on Iraq.

So, despite some effort to reach out to the party that now runs Congress, it is not at all clear that Mr Bush succeeded in slowing the clock ticking down his presidency.

His speech did garner the frequent standing ovations that usually mark a State of the Union address, not only from Republicans, but also from Democrats.

But the most unrestrained applause came at the beginning, when he hailed Democrat Nancy Pelosi, who has just become the first woman to become Speaker of the House.

Mr Bush may have been the one making the speech, but for the moment, in Washington, it looks like she is the one who will be calling the shots.

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