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Bush faces difficult set of obstacles In assessing the union Tuesday, the president faced a nation and its Congress in a decidedly troubled state.

President Bush used his State of the Union address Tuesday night to try to revive his presidency against what may be the greatest odds any chief executive has faced in a generation.

Other presidents have faced difficult moments and others have been dealt electoral setbacks, but few have faced the combination of obstacles that now confront this White House.

Bush arrived at the Capitol at his lowest point in public-opinion polls, confronted by new Democratic majorities in the House and Senate and facing lame-duck status as attention turns rapidly toward a 2008 presidential campaign that will choose his successor.

The president's problems all stem from the same reality. The public has lost confidence in his Iraq War policy, and in the face of evidence that Americans are looking for a change in course, the president has chosen with his new plan to deploy additional troops to the conflict -- a direction the public overwhelmingly opposes.

But his response Tuesday night was a speech that was very much in keeping with the style of leadership he has demonstrated repeatedly in office. If he was humbler in tone and rhetorically generous to his Democratic opponents in calling for cooperation, he was anything but defensive.

There were three underlying messages in the speech. The first was a plea for patience on Iraq, a chord struck earlier in the day by Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, Bush's choice to become the new commander of U.S. forces there. Although roughly two in three Americans disagree with the decision to send more troops to Iraq, and members of Congress are preparing nonbinding resolutions declaring their opposition, Bush asked for time to show that the strategy can succeed.

He recalled that the country was largely united at the time of the invasion in 2003 and acknowledged the divisions that have emerged since. But he argued that whatever motivated members of Congress at the time of the invasion, there was a consensus that the United States must win the war.

"This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we are in," he said.

But Bush may have been speaking into the void. Over the past six months, there has been a critical turn in public opinion.

Long ago, a majority of Americans concluded that the president's decision to go to war was a mistake.

Bush has lost the battle for public opinion. NBC News-Wall Street Journal polls have tracked public confidence on the question of whether there will be a successful conclusion in Iraq. A year ago, the public was mildly pessimistic, with 41 percent saying they had confidence in a successful outcome and 49 percent saying they did not.

Attitudes remained generally in that range throughout the summer, but last fall they took a sharp negative turn. By October, just 27 percent saw hope for a successful conclusion, and 61 percent did not.

The second message was a call for bipartisan cooperation, particularly on domestic issues such as budget deficits, earmarks, immigration, energy, health care and education.

"We are not the first to come here with government divided and uncertainty in the air," Bush said. "Like many before us, we can work through our differences and achieve big things for the American people. 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."

Administration officials expressed optimism Tuesday that they can reach agreement with the Democrats in Congress on the path to a balanced budget, on the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind education law and on some elements of a strategy to wean the nation off imported oil.

But even as Bush was calling for bipartisan cooperation, Democrats were seeking coalitions with Republicans to advance their own agenda. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will begin working this morning on a resolution opposing Bush's Iraq plan, a measure that enjoys the support of a growing number of Republican senators. In the House, Democrats completed work on the first six items of their agenda last week, attracting a substantial number of Republicans.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said Tuesday that Bush so far has shown no evidence of wanting real compromise with Democrats on issues such as Iraq and health care.

Bush's third message was perhaps the most robust domestic agenda of his presidency, a way of saying to those who are ready to write him off that he still has the power of the bully pulpit to inject ideas into the national debate and force others to react to them.

"Either we're going to see progress on that agenda, or it will be a banner to which our allies on the Hill, Republican or Democrat, can repair," a senior White House official said.

Even Republicans outside the White House questioned that optimism. "My view is that Bush's speech tonight, especially the domestic policy side, is an attempt to set the agenda for the 2008 Republican primaries, not for the 2007 Congress," said Daniel Casse, a Republican strategist.

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