State of the Union address: A meshing of many ideas

Posted on January 30, 2006

WASHINGTON — Two senators solicit a report on what to do about the decline of science and technology in the USA. President Bush hands copies of his 2005 State of the Union speech to Vice President Cheney and House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Luke Frazza, Getty Images An insurance company commissions a health care study that becomes a book. The first lady reads a newspaper story about troubled youth. The ideas come from all over the place. But at this time of year, in this city, they often have one destination: the president's annual State of the Union address. When President Bush ascends the rostrum in the House of Representatives chamber Tuesday night, he'll bring to a close a yearlong lobbying process. (Related: What's happened since last speech) "People in departments and agencies are always thinking of what they'd like to showcase in the State of the Union," former White House speechwriter Matthew Scully says. The push also comes from Congress, private groups and anyone with a policy idea that would benefit from having the president discuss it on TV. A vetting of proposals The formal process of deciding what would be in or out of the speech began in early December, when Bush sat down with his speechwriting team, according to presidential counselor Dan Bartlett. By the time the president left for his Christmas break at his Texas ranch, he had a fairly specific outline. Bartlett says the last weeks are devoted to final drafts, revisions and timed rehearsals. Proposals are vetted by the offices that develop the Bush agenda, particularly four "policy councils" — domestic, economic, homeland security and national security. "That's where things get litigated," Bartlett says. The last stop is a review by a small group of Bush's senior advisers, including Bartlett, chief of staff Andy Card and deputy chief of staff/political guru Karl Rove. Those aides and Bush himself are often the targets of lobbying. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. Clay Johnson, a deputy director at the Office of Management and Budget, says he's tried to get items into the speech by contacting Bush, a former classmate from their prep school days. "Let me tell you," he confesses, "friendship carries no weight." On the other hand, some senators made a pitch to Bush last month that appears to have been successful. Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., began by asking the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine, a question: What are 10 ways the United States can enhance its science and technology to better compete in the 21st century? The academies responded with a report that recommended new scholarship programs for math and science students, plus tax incentives for businesses that innovate. The report caught the eye of the White House, and staff met with members of the panel that authored the report. On Dec. 15, the president met with Alexander, Bingaman and Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Energy Committee. Alexander says his goal all along was to get the report into the State of the Union. The president "is the nation's agenda setter," he says, and "the State of the Union is the best opportunity for him to set that agenda." Apparently Alexander met his goal. Bush told supporters in Kansas last week, "I plan on doing some talking about math and science and engineering programs, so that people who graduate out of college will have the skills necessary to compete in this competitive world." Sticking to big themes Some ideas can gestate for years. Allan Hubbard, director of the White House National Economic Council, says that when he was on the board of Anthem Inc. a few years ago, the health care company commissioned a study of what to do about health care. Hubbard says he recommended three economists: R. Glenn Hubbard, John Cogan and Daniel Kessler. Last year, the three produced a book that worked its way into the State of the Union food chain this year. Healthy, Wealthy & Wise includes recommendations for tax breaks on health care, a topic that Allan Hubbard said Bush would explore Tuesday night. Some ideas surface close to home. First lady Laura Bush told PBS anchor Jim Lehrer last year that she had "read this article in The New York Times Magazine and then just started investigating the statistics about boys." Her curiosity led to an anti-gang initiative in the State of the Union last year. The president, of course, has his own ideas. In 2004, the former major league baseball team owner surprised listeners by condemning steroid use by professional athletes, which he said "sends the wrong message" to children "that there are shortcuts to accomplishment." Bush's personal style makes it a little harder for specific programs to make their way into the State of the Union. President Clinton used the speeches to detail scores of proposals, some quite small, but Bush likes big ideas. "He's not going to talk about everything under the sun," Johnson says. "He's going to be talking about a handful of very big themes." After which, the lobbying will begin all over again. Says former White House speechwriter David Frum: "The planning for the next State of the Union really begins the day after the last State of the Union."