The president's first stop was a visit to Tennessee.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- President Bush, attempting to confront a national anxiety about war and a changing American economy, came to the seat of country music Wednesday with a Texas-style appeal for his promises of making America more competitive and less dependent on oil.
Yet, as much as the president wants to pivot public debate away from war and toward a new agenda of "American competitiveness," he has found it difficult, both with his State of the Union address and with reinforcing words on the road in Nashville, to get past the question of the war in Iraq. It took him more than an hour here to dispense with war and delve into his new "strategic vision for our country."
About the war
"I understand there is an anxiety about a time of war," Bush said. "That's natural, it seems to me. ... People are changing jobs a lot, and there is competition from India and China, which creates some uncertainty. ... In uncertain times, it's easy for people to lose confidence in the capacity of this country to lead. ... We must never lose sight of our capacity to lead this world toward peace."
Launching a weeks-long campaign for the programs outlined in his State of the Union address, the president arrived first in a state that supported his re-election by a margin of 14 percentage points. Tennessee rejected its own native son, former Vice President Al Gore, in Bush's first presidential bid in 2000.
Standing on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, Bush greeted an invited audience of several thousand people that had been warmed up by country musicians.
"I can see why my buddy [Larry] Gatlin finds that extra note when he sings" here, Bush said. "I probably should have come here before I gave my speech. ... I thought, how cool would it have been to give the State of the Union address in a Porter Wagoner outfit?"'
With musicians portraying this as God's country, the audience rose with applause when Bush declared: "I believe there is an Almighty, and I believe that freedom is the Almighty's gift to this world."
Still, for whatever attention Bush draws to his State of the Union promises of making America more competitive in a changing world, less dependent on gasoline and more generous with health care, the second-term president faces an uphill challenge to regain support among an electorate and Congress that are sharply divided heading into a midterm congressional election year.
Bush "has governed from his base," said John Geer, professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, and the war in Iraq remains an impediment to Bush's prospects at home.
"The State of the Union address obviously provides him the chance to get the attention of the American public," Geer said. "But it is not going to undo the structural problem he faces. You have a situation in Iraq that is not going to get better in the short term. ... I see him not having a really big change in popularity."