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'Hard is not hopeless'

"'Hard is not hopeless'" Continued...

Issue: "The surge is on," Feb. 3, 2007

But in a recent appearance on CNN's Larry King Live, the former Vietnam POW shrugged off concerns that his support for the war could damage his prospects for the presidency: "I would much rather lose an election than lose a war."

Gamemanship

Confident but embattled president takes on lawmakers and peanut gallery

By Becky Perry

At a State of the Union watch party near Dupont Circle in downtown Washington, nearly 100 students and alumni from The Fund for American Studies internship program crowded around a wall-sized projector, filing into rows of folding chairs as Congress filed into the House chamber on C-SPAN.

"It's the political red carpet," quipped Liz Goldberg, 22, balancing a plate of pizza on her lap. "Where's Joan and Melissa?"

A stack of Bush bingo cards started to circulate, featuring such presidential phrases as "Terra (Terror)," "My Wife, Laura," and "Make No Mistake." The instructions: Cross out a phrase every time it appears in the speech. Cross out a line, yell "bingo," and win a prize.

President Bush opened by offering congratulations to "Madam Speaker" Nancy Pelosi, as the first female speaker of the House of Representatives. Faced with the new Democratic majority and splintering Republican support, Bush focused on a moderate domestic agenda, including energy proposals to reduce gasoline consumption by 20 percent over the next 10 years and health-care proposals to improve insurance access. Hot-button topics like New Orleans reconstruction, stem-cell research, and gay marriage were notably absent from this year's address.

"It was very delicate, especially for him," Goldberg said of the speech. "He's usually much more bold, but I think he was cognizant of his present audience." When the topic finally turned to war, Bush asserted that "America must not fail in Iraq," urging the Congress to give his proposed troop surge "a chance" to succeed.

But to Iraqi Fulbright scholar Bilal Wahab, asking for another chance is not enough. "He should be asking for support, for advice," said Wahab, who recently completed his graduate study at American University and will return to his family in Kurdish northern Iraq this month. "The Democrats are in power, so they are responsible as well."

"I understand the frustration about sending more troops," he added. "But opposing the president is not enough. You need to have an alternative plan."

In the Democratic response, Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia charged, "The president took us into this war recklessly." Webb, an ex-Marine whose son is now deployed in Iraq, defeated George Allen in the midterm elections partly because of his vocal opposition to the war.

With some young D.C. professionals, his message resounded strongly.

"I thought Senator Webb's address was pointed," said Mark Gaber, 24. "[He] demonstrated that the Democratic Congress is going to return some realism to Washington."

To conclude the address, Bush wisely sidestepped controversy, focusing instead on the feel-good life stories of basketball star Dikembe Mutombo, war veteran Tommy Rieman, and subway hero Wesley Autrey. Those cued laughter from the students, as the 7-foot-2-inch Mutombo stood and grinned, dwarfing first lady Laura Bush beside him, and when Autrey's sleeping daughter-curled up next to him in the balcony-startled awake during applause for her father.

In a speech that clocked nearly 50 minutes, the president held to the last the traditional introductory declaration, "The state of our union is strong." Moments earlier, a final mention of Afghanistan had prompted a chorus at the back of the room: "Bingo!"

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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