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THE SITUATION ROOM

Preparation for State of the Union; Webb's Democratic Response has Personal Stake in War; Five Security Contractors Killed in Baghdad

Aired January 23, 2007 - 19:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, Lou. And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM where new pictures and information are arriving all the time.
PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Standing by CNN reporters all over the country and around the world to bring you tonight's top stories.

BLITZER: And happening right now President Bush preparing to face a very tough crowd -- a Democratic run Congress, skeptical fellow Republicans and a nation very weary of war. Tonight the stage is set for a challenging State of the Union address.

ZAHN: Can Mr. Bush pull his agenda and his presidency out of the shadow of Iraq? We're going to take a look at what is in and not in his critical speech tonight.

BLITZER: And Paula, look for Democrats to take a hard line on Iraq. The party's response will be delivered by a senator with a very, very personal stake in this war.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

ZAHN: And I'm Paula Zahn.

BLITZER: And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

You're looking at a live picture of Capitol Hill where President Bush will stand alone tonight before Congress and the American people.

ZAHN: The Bush White House, of course, all too aware of the harsh realities he faces tonight. The president's new Iraq strategy is under fire, even by some Republicans. His Democratic opponents are running Congress, and his approval rating is lower than it's ever been for a State of the Union address.

BLITZER: Paula, the best political team on television is standing by along with our guests to help us cover this important speech and this important night for the president and for the nation. And as we get ready to hear from the president himself, let's go to our White House correspondent, Ed Henry. He's got the latest on what the president will say -- Ed.

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the excitement already building here at the White House just a couple of hundred feet behind me, the president's limousine waiting to take him to the Capitol. Obviously, what makes this year's speech so dramatic is what will be waiting for him on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, a Democratic Congress.

All of a sudden the president, he has to deal with a new political reality. We're told he'll begin this speech with congratulations to those Democrats and he wants to try to focus this speech on big, bold statements that he wants to make new initiatives on domestic issues. Domestic issues he thinks he can work with Democrats on, but he's also going to talk about Iraq.

It's the elephant in the room. He will try to make another pitch for his plan to increase U.S. troops in Iraq, more than 21,000 U.S. troops and here is what he will say according to the excerpts we already have.

Quote -- about his commanders, quote, "we discussed every possible approach. In the end, I chose this course of action because it provides the best chance of success. Many in this chamber understand that America must not fail in Iraq because you understand that the consequences of failures would be grievous and far reaching."

But the challenge for this president as we heard this very same argument just two weeks ago is his speech from here in the White House where he first laid out this new strategy. It's clear from the public polls. It's clear from the reaction on Capitol Hill he has not made the sale yet.

He's going to try to make it yet again tonight. But the challenge, the clear problem for this president is not just Democrats now on his heels; it's also a growing number of Republicans in his own party who are saying they are not on board with this strategy -- Wolf, Paula.

BLITZER: All right, Ed. We're going to have Ed stand by over at the White House. We're told, by the way, that about half of the president's speech will deal with foreign policy, the other half with several critical domestic issues.

ZAHN: And tonight, Democrats, of course, are responding to Mr. Bush from a new position of power and influence. They're in charge of both chambers of Congress for the first time of his presidency. Let's now go to our congressional correspondent Dana Bash. I got a briefing from Democratic leaders earlier today. They are hoping this president will reach across the aisle to them. Will they be disappointed?

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well they are expecting the president to offer an olive branch, pledge to work across the aisle, as you said, but the House speaker said today that she's going to know very quickly whether or not the president in her words, is ready to work cooperatively or say I'm the decider. The speaker, we should note, who is going to be sitting behind the president for the very first time for an event like this.

Now, the White House could really say the same thing about Democrats. They're trashing the president's health care proposal even before he gives it tonight. But of course the biggest flash point, political flash point, is the Iraq war. The Democrats chose one of their very new senators, Senator Jim Webb from Virginia, to give their formal response to the president.

He gave Democrats in the Senate their one vote majority because he ran very hard against the Iraq war. But as Ed was saying, it's not just the Democrats that we should really look for tonight and we have been talking to about their growing opposition to the war. It's Republicans.

You walk through the halls, talk to members of Congress here today, Paula, it's not so much about whether the president can turn the Congress, turn the country around when it comes to the Iraq war. It's how many Republican senators are going to vote against the president? Make clear that they oppose his new plan to increase troops in Iraq -- Paula.

ZAHN: An interesting question. Dana, thank you so much. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in his briefing, we asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Harry Reid what those numbers might ultimately be. And he thought on a joint resolution if they ever get it boiled down to one, you might have 12 to 15 Republicans voting against the surge of troops.

BLITZER: There are a lot of skeptical Republicans out there. The president himself fully appreciates the political problems he faces. Let's go to the front lines though of the conflict in Iraq where the president's plan for a troop build-up is literally, literally, Paula, a life and death issue.

ZAHN: And Arwa Damon is standing by in Baghdad -- first, though, to our chief national correspondent John King. He has been talking with troops and military families in North Carolina. What do they have to say, John?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Paula, what tells you that this is a difficult and a very precarious moment for the president is how in a red state like North Carolina in military communities across this state that it supported the president and it supported the war. There is growing skepticism. There are growing questions.

There is even growing opposition to the war. And what you're hearing from families here is of course what you're seeing reflected back in Washington when Republican members of Congress are saying we need to see progress in three to six months or we outright oppose the president's plan to send in more troops. They are saying that in Washington because they are hearing it from the folks back home in conservative places like this in North Carolina.

We visited some Marines this week, training at Camp Lejeune. They will soon be off to deployments in Iraq. Talked to the military communities, one word comes up often, fatigue. They are tired of second and third deployment, families having a spouse away for a year, back for a few months, then training to go away for another year.

There are many retired military people live in these communities. They say they have watched now for almost four years after a series and series and series of what they consider to be huge blunders by the Pentagon and by the president. So what is so telling about the difficult moment this president finds himself in is that in a place like this, a state he won twice, there is open skepticism, in some ways open opposition, and frankly, Paula, simply the belief that nothing the president can say tonight will win them back.

They need to see progress in Iraq. They need to see the Iraqis do more. They want some hope that in the months ahead he will begin bringing their sons and daughters home.

ZAHN: John King reporting from near Camp Lejeune. We'll be checking in with you later tonight, John. Thanks so much. Of course, half a world away, the Iraq war rages on. Senior U.S. officials say a private security helicopter went down in Baghdad today. Five civilians onboard were killed. A senior Iraqi official says it was shot down.

Let's go live to Arwa Damon now in the Iraqi capital for the latest on that -- Arwa.

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Paula, it's been very deadly here. Again, we had that incident that you just mentioned with the five security contractors who were killed. The details still coming in, the incident still under investigation, but according to a senior U.S. official, the helicopter either crashed or was shot down in a north central Baghdad neighborhood. All five security personnel onboard were killed.

Now according to this official, they were all found with gunshot wounds. However, the cause of death is unknown, whether it was because of the crash or because of the gunshot wounds. Again, this incident still under investigation, but serving really to underscore just how dangerous this country really is -- Paula.

ZAHN: And of course that is something very much on the minds of everybody that will be watching the speech tonight, wondering just what portion of the president's strategy will move on.

BLITZER: This is the second chopper, Paula that has gone down in recent days. A Blackhawk Army helicopter was shot down by a shoulder- fired missile we suspect the other day. Twelve American soldiers were killed. Now this chopper goes down as well.

Let's check in with Jack Cafferty. He's in New York with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, President Bush will walk into a joint session of Congress tonight with the worst public approval rating of any president in a generation. The American citizens love that the current president is now approaching the levels they had for Richard Nixon at the time he resigned in disgrace because of Watergate.

Even the Republicans are turning against him on his foreign policy, the war in Iraq, an (UNINTELLIGIBLE) disaster, no end in sight, so tonight Mr. Bush is expected to talk about his domestic agenda, things like health care, alternative energy, immigration, and education. The White House is suggesting that just because we have a divided federal government does not mean that Mr. Bush cannot govern -- really?

President Bush had a Republican majority in both Houses of Congress for the last six years and has accomplished virtually nothing with respect to any of these issues. Forty-seven million people with no health insurance, 12 million illegal aliens in the country, no border security, global warming predicted to be happening even faster than we thought as we continue to consume oil and gasoline with no meaningful efforts at conservation. And I don't have enough time to start talking about what President Bush has not accomplished in the area of education.

And yet they think we don't get it somehow. Here's the question. How seriously will you take President Bush's State of the Union address tonight? E-mail your thoughts to CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile -- Wolf, Paula.

BLITZER: We'll be anxious to hear, Jack, what our viewers think. Jack will be back, Paula, later this hour.

And still to come, we're keeping a close watch on the U.S. Capitol as we stand by for President Bush's State of the Union address. What does Mr. Bush plan to say specifically about energy, health care, other issues on the home front? We have some new details. That's coming up.

ZAHN: Plus, the president's wish list from past State of the Union addresses. Was he able to get what he wanted from Congress back when Republicans were in charge? We'll have a reality check.

BLITZER: And a top Senate Democrat and presidential hopeful, Chris Dodd. Is he ready to come out swinging even before the president's speech? We'll be speaking shortly with the senator from Connecticut. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. We're waiting for President Bush's sixth State of the Union address. And in the audience as Mr. Bush speaks will be some members of Congress who actually hope to replace this president.

ZAHN: And one of them joins us now, Democratic Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut. He is a presidential candidate, one of those that Wolf just mentioned. He joins us from Capitol Hill. Thanks so much for joining us tonight.

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD (D-CT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thank you very much. Good to be with both of you.

ZAHN: Thank you. So we know polls would indicate the American public is very much opposed to the president's plan in Iraq right now, the president has gone up against what the Iraq Study Group has done or recommended, and also up against Congress now. I know you're considering some non-binding resolutions that would show the president that in a powerful way. What I want to know is if you think that Congress can really have any impact on the president's actions at this point?

DODD: I think we can and I think we should try. I'm going to be offering tomorrow of some language in the Foreign Relations Committee that is more binding than a sense in the Senate resolution. It merely says that before you can raise the limits of troops in Iraq that you have got to have an authorization coming from the president.

John Warner has this exactly right. I may disagree with some of his language, but he said last fall you need a new authorization here. The authorization given five years ago was about -- based on weapons of mass destruction and the existence of Saddam Hussein and his human rights violations.

He no longer is here. We know the first justification was false. Today, to send 17,000 young men and women into a city of six million people to sort out 23 militias, Baathists, insurgents and the like is a totally different justification. In my view, Congress ought to stand up. If you're for it, vote for it. If you're against it, vote against it. But non binding resolution at this point I think it would disappointment people that we're not exercising our authorities.

ZAHN: But as you know, Senator, the administration officials have argued that the president does have this power to insert these additional troops and he does not need congressional approval.

DODD: All the more reason why we ought to respond to that in means other than the sort of expressions of opposition, we have all expressed our views on this. No one has any doubt about what a single member of the Senate or the Congress stands on this proposal. We all know that. The question is are we going to try and do anything about it.

BLITZER: The president is going to talk at length, we're told, Senator, about the consequences of failure. In other words, he's going to suggest, although he won't directly challenge you, that your ideas could lead to failure. It would be a disaster for the United States and that part of the world. What do you make of that theme that he's going to say just give me some time to try to work this out?

DODD: Wolf, it is a failure. It's not whether it will be a failure or not. This is not working. That's not the observation of a senator. That's the observations of our senior military people and others who have been there who strongly suggested a different course of action, including the Baker-Hamilton report.

We had witnesses today before the Foreign Relations Committee to a person regardless of their ideology believes we need a much different approach, as John Warner has said. Everyone except the president and his closest advisers believe this is not working. If you're not going to continue to pursue it, it gets worse, not better.

You're not going to get the political resolution inside, and you're not reaching regionally to bring people together. This is a mistake and it's a dear one we're making. We need to change course.

BLITZER: You've suggested there should be a sealing or a cap on how many troops should be allowed to serve in Iraq. Is that right?

DODD: Well only to try to get the attention of the administration to come up and request a new authorization and give us a few days to debate this and decide whether or not the Congress believe this is the right thing to do. My fear is, Wolf, if we wait the next two or three months when appropriation is on the table, I'll tell you what the argument will be.

In fact, you'll tell me what the argument is going to be. There will be people standing up saying wait a minute now, Senator. Those young men and women are on the ground there today. Are you going to cut off the money that would put them at risk? That's going to be a much tougher debate than the one we ought to have now before they're being sent over and saying no now rather than debate in two or three months, which gets much more difficult.

ZAHN: Another debate that is going to be equally contentious is the debate on health care. Among some of the proposals the president will put forth tonight is an idea where you would tax what would be considered an overly generous health care plan to help subsidize or help pay for insurance for Americans who don't have it. In principle, do you think that's fair?

DODD: I worry about that, Paula, because it's going to end up reducing health care coverage already for people who work in businesses where people will probably be dropping the health care coverage altogether. That's increasing the numbers who are without health insurance today.

But let me be (UNINTELLIGIBLE) saying that. Look, the fact the president is talking about this I welcome and so I'm not going to jump all over this. I would suggest one he's putting an idea out there. I would hope he would invite key members like Charlie Rangel, Ted Kennedy, Max Baucus, the Republican leaders of these committees down to the White House and begin working on a plan, listen to other people.

If you're truly interested in doing something here, bring people together and try and come up with a compromise that we could all be supportive of. So I welcome the fact he's talking about an issue he hasn't talked about in the last six State of the Union messages that I can recall.

ZAHN: Senator Dodd got to leave it there tonight. Thanks so much. Appreciate your time.

DODD: Thank you. Thank you, Paula. Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll be watching you in the House of Representatives. See if he stands, if he sits. There's going to be a little dancing going on over there.

ZAHN: One of the things Senator Harry Reid said he has told the senators not to do is to sort of sit in repose. He said someone snapped a picture of me when I was watching Nancy Pelosi and it didn't look right, so he's advising everybody to look respectful tonight.

BLITZER: If somebody falls asleep we'll catch that as well. Still to come tonight right here in THE SITUATION ROOM, we'll have much more as we await the State of the Union address and the Democratic response. We're going to be carrying both live right here on CNN. In a short while, the president will walk the long aisle of a House divided. We'll also go live to the White House. Our Ed Henry is getting more excerpts from the president's address.

ZAHN: And Democrats want you to know what they think the State of the Union is. Tonight, the Democratic response, as we mentioned, will be delivered by newly elected Senator Jim Webb of Virginia. Aside from his being a senator, he has one unique reason for speaking out about the Iraq war, and it's deeply personal. We'll tell you why.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight on "360", the State of the Union. What the president promised this time and how well he's been keeping his promises from the last time.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We should be able to further decrease our troop levels.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Now more than ever it matters, so we're checking the record and keeping them honest -- "360" tonight after the speech.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. We're standing by for two major addresses -- the president's State of the Union speech. That will be followed by the Democratic response.

ZAHN: The Democratic response a lot shorter than the...

BLITZER: Two very different...

ZAHN: ... 15-minute or so speech that the president...

BLITZER: Two very different speeches as well.

ZAHN: Right now though we're going to check in with Carol Costello who joins us from New York. She is monitoring stories from all over the world. What is crossing the wires right now, Carol?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Well Paula let's start in Beirut. There are unconfirmed reports tonight that Hezbollah is calling off anti government protests that turned deadly, at least three people and possibly as many as five were killed in the violent demonstration. Opponents of the pro western government are demanding the prime minister step down, but he is vowing to stay while appealing for calm. Now to opening statements in the trial of "Scooter" Libby and they are explosive. Libby's lawyer told jurors the former top aide to Vice President Cheney was set up to take the fall for White House adviser Karl Rove in the CIA leak case. Libby is charged with lying and obstruction of justice in connection with the probe into who leaked the name of under cover CIA agent Valerie Plame to the news media.

The Associated Press is reporting that Watergate figure E. Howard Hunt has died. Hunt spent 33 months in prison for his role in helping to organize the infamous break-in that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. The AP says Hunt had been suffering from pneumonia. He was 88 years old.

That's a look at the headlines right now -- back to you, Wolf and Paula.

BLITZER: Thanks, Carol, very much. That's quite a trial that's going on, that Scooter Libby trial. Tomorrow, by the way, we have an interview, an exclusive interview with the vice president, Dick Cheney. We're going to be airing that tomorrow.

ZAHN: You might just have to ask j=him about that alleged fall guy charge there.

BLITZER: I suspect he's not going to have much...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: ... to say on that subject.

But just ahead, right here, we're waiting for President Bush's State of the Union address and the Democratic response. We're going to go live to both the White House and Capitol Hill for previews. We'll also get some early reaction from Congress.

ZAHN: And what exactly does the president need to accomplish with this address tonight? We'll be talking about that with Democratic -- that would be Democrat Paul Begala and Republican J.C. Watts in tonight's "Strategy Session". They'll be onboard shortly.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM where new pictures and information are arriving all the time.

ZAHN: Happening right now, President Bush getting ready to inform the nation about the State of the Union in this, his sixth address. He's expected to discuss health care, energy, the environment, and the issue on virtually everyone's mind, the most explosive issue, the issue of Iraq.

BLITZER: And tonight, Paula, the president will do something he has never had to do during his presidency. He'll stand before a Congress in which both Houses are controlled by Democrats. Amid growing opposition to the president's Iraq plan from Democrats, how will Mr. Bush be received?

ZAHN: Well, tonight's Democratic response will be delivered by a relatively new face in Congress, newly elected Senator Jim Webb of Virginia. And he has a unique reason for speaking out about the Iraq war. He'll tell us about that a little bit later on. I'm Paula Zahn.

BLITZER: And I'm Wolf Blitzer and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ZAHN: On Capitol Hill right now anticipation building for President Bush's State of the Union address. Of course, we will bring it to you live along with the Democratic response.

BLITZER: The White House is hoping Mr. Bush can take some of the pressure off on Iraq by turning his attention to several critical domestic issues, but that may be, may be an uphill battle. Our senior national correspondent John Roberts is standing by. He's (UNINTELLIGIBLE) on Capitol Hill. But let's get the latest from our White House correspondent Ed Henry.

Ed, are you getting some more excerpts of what the president will say?

HENRY: That's right. And tonight, Wolf, the president wants to take a schematic approach. He doesn't want a laundry list of dozens of policy initiatives. He wants to try to pick off a handful of issues where the White House believes he can come up with what they call big and bold ideas, just a handful of domestic issues, as you said, shift the focus just ever so slightly from Iraq. Chief among those ideas a plan called 20-10. The president wants to cut gasoline consumption by a whopping 20 percent over the next 10 years. He wants to do this through billions of dollars in research into renewable fuels, also reform the so-called cafe or fuel-efficiency standards for cars.

The president will say tonight in this excerpt, quote, "For too long, our nation has been dependent on foreign oil. And this dependence leaves us more vulnerable to hostile regimes and to terrorists who could cause huge disruptions of oil shipments, raise the price of oil, and do great harm to our economy. It is in our vital interest to diversify America's energy supply and the way forward is through technology."

But Democrats like Senator Chuck Schumer already saying this is really not so big and bold. The president for example in the fuel efficiency standards, just really laying out goals. Not really putting in mandates. Also, on the issue for climate change, the president in a first for him will actually address the issue of the climate change, but will not actually call for caps on CO2 emissions. That falls short of what environmentalists were calling for.

Also worth noting, same time, this time last year, and last year's State of the Union address, the president also said we were too dependent on foreign oil. Nothing really happened in the last Congress even though it was in Republican control. Now that it's in Democratic hands, even harder for the president to pass something like this 2010 plan, Wolf. BLITZER: All right Ed, stand by. We're going to be getting back to you. As we watch all of this unfold, Paula, Americans certainly watching the president's speech at home tonight may be hard to please. We have got some new numbers. Our new poll numbers shows that President Bush's approval rating at a time of each of the state of the union addresses. Check this out.

ZAHN: As you can see if you look closely at our graphic here, public opinion of the way Mr. Bush is doing his job has gone down year after year from a high of 84 percent in 2002 to 34 percent tonight.

BLITZER: So how might this State of the Union be different or similar to others?

ZAHN: And what do members of the president's own party think he has to accomplish with this address? Joining us now from Capitol Hill is our senior national correspondent, John Roberts -- John?

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN SR. NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hey, good evening to you Paula, good evening to you, Wolf.

You know, I have covered five State of the Union speeches given by President Bush, covered one with President Clinton. And there's no time that I can remember when going into a State of the Union address, the president has been in such difficulty and so under fire, as President Bush is right now.

His approval rating is in the dumper. The fact that Congress has now changed hands. You know, even Bill Clinton didn't have this problem in 1995 because his approval ratings were still pretty high. I talked to some Republicans about what President Bush needs to do, and they said that he needs to prove tonight that he's not a lame duck.

He needs to show that he's relevant. He needs to reach out to Democrats. He needs to challenge them. He also needs to show that he wants to work together with them. Now how might that manifest itself in his legislative agenda?

Well, there's a possibility that he could reach out in a bipartisan way and get the Democrats to come along with him on immigration because frankly, the Democrats are closer to where he is on immigration than the Republican Congress was.

And he's probably got a better chance to get something passed with the Democrats in control. Health care and education though, he's already getting a lot of blow-back on that from Senator Ted Kennedy, who doesn't believe the No Child Left Behind Act has been funded enough. In fact, there were some figures floating around a couple of years ago that there was a $40 billion deficit in the funding there.

People also don't like this idea of a tax hype for health care. He's going to get blow back from Republicans and Democrats on that. And of course, Iraq according to Republicans I talked to, has just crippled literally everything that the president has been trying to do. They say that if you can work together with people, but it's very difficult when they're jumping down your throat every day on Iraq. And they believe that the president has a very short time to turn things around on Iraq. They say, when the appropriators start taking up the 2007-2008 budget this coming fall, that's potentially when President Bush is going to have some problems.

So Wolf, it's a very, very high bar, and I just have got to say, covering this president as I have for the past six and a half years, he's just in a position of difficulty that I've never seen him in before.

BLITZER: And he's got his work certainly ahead of him tonight. This note to our viewers, John, in the next hour is going to be moving from Statuary Hall on Capitol Hill right into the House of Representatives chamber. This is going to be a first. He's going to be reporting from inside. He'll get a bird's eye view, Paula, of what's going on. This is going to be very cool to get one of our own reporters inside, not just all those congressman and women.

ZAHN: so if there's something really indelicate that happens verbally, he will be the guy that will be able to hear it.

BLITZER: He'll be right inside, our viewers ought to stay tuned for that.

ZAHN: But everybody on the Hill will be very well behaved tonight.

BLITZER: We're going to get some more now on the State of the Union in our "Strategy Session." And joining us, we've got two strategists.

ZAHN: And we know them both. Paul Begala, Democratic strategist. J.C. Watts, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma. I assume that means you're still working for the Republicans, right?

J.C. WATTS, FORMER REPUBLICAN CONGRESSMAN: I'm still onboard. Getting kind of heavy, but I'm still onboard.

ZAHN: I want to put back up on the screen the staggering poll showing that this president goes into the State of the Union address with a 34 percent approval rating, the lowest of any president on a State of the Union night.

Now I am told by some Republicans that he's going to kind of not worry about his base tonight, but really try to reach across the aisle and maybe speak to Independents and some Democrats who might be on the fence tonight. Is that going to work?

WATTS: Paula, that 34 percent number that we saw in the poll, I don't think that number says we don't like you. I think that number says that we're not...

ZAHN: ... It doesn't say we love you. WATTS: But the number says -- you asked the question. Let me answer it now.

I think the number says we don't like the direction of the way things are going in Iraq. And I think they're saying, show us how we're going to get out of this. And I think I have said before, if the benchmark is more Americans losing their lives and more money being spent, if that's the benchmark, I'm surprised those numbers aren't lower. And that's what the numbers have been.

I think the president is trying to come up with a plan. I think he's going to but pressure on the Democrats. He needs to continue to do that. Put pressure on the Democrats to say we can't afford to lose this war. So I don't think the numbers are saying they don't like him. They're saying, we just don't know where you're taking us. You have to show us a better way.

ZAHN: You've got Paul rolling his eyes here. You don't buy that at all?

WATTS: Paul's supposed to do that.

PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: It's in the data. It's not just the war, which is enormous. It's him personally. And this has got to be a source of grievance to the White House.

If you look at -- I looked at the "Washington Post" poll. They ask a lot of personal questions. 54 percent say he's not a strong leader, 55 percent say he has not made America safer, 56 percent say he can't be trusted in a crisis, 57 percent say he's not honest or trustworthy, 59 percent say he's not an effective leader.

They don't like him personally. And the problem is, we have been through a lot with him now. The American people know him. Two presidential elections, two congressional elections, two wars, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, we know him.

I don't see a way out. I met my wife when I was 19. We have been together 25 years. If she's through with me, there are no new moves I have got for her. I mean, she's seen it all out of me. And if she's through with me, I'm through.

BLITZER: But the Democrats potentially have some treacherous ground they have to navigate as well.

BEGALA: It's a good point, they do. And the country, I think, wants the Democrats more to rescue President Bush than crush him. I think they are sort of through with him. But they are going to look to the Democrats then to show some leadership, work with him when they can, but also maybe intervene.

You know, if you have a friend or someone you love, who's got a problem drinking or gambling or something, you have an intervention. I think people want Democrats in Congress and Republicans to have an intervention with this president. ZAHN: Well, the Democrats I talked with today to aren't talking about rescuing the president. They're talking about three days of heated debates about a nonbinding war resolution that will tell the president they hate where he is on this issue of increasing troop involvement in Iraq.

WATTS: And Paula and Wolf, if you would look at Democrat numbers, their numbers would probably be just as poor simply because their plan is to be against the president's plan.

And concerning Republicans and Democrats, against the war, Paula it's tough trying to execute a war, Republican or Democrat president in a political environment. Those people who are coming out against the war, they have elections in '08. So the Democrats, it's to their advantage to be against anything that the president does. Republicans, they're not going to string them. They're not going to walk the plank for the president considering they're up in November '08.

A third of the U.S. Senate, every one of the Republican House members. So that's going to make it very challenging for this president to try to get something done in a very short legislative time.

BLITZER: We've got to leave it right there. But right behind you, you can see a familiar sight to you, J.C., as a former member of Congress. Statuary Hall, you see all the statues on the outside of those walls over there? That's why they call it, Paula, Statuary Hall, in case you didn't know that.

BEGALA: It was once the House chamber.

BLITZER: You knew that?

BEGALA: Absolutely, that's where Abraham Lincoln served in the House of Representatives.

BLITZER: And members walk through there to go inside the House and our John Roberts is there, as well.

WATTS: Paul could have gotten you in there.

BEGALA: Finally, my people are in charge for the first time in a long time.

ZAHN: When you walk through there, there has to be a chill you get, particularly on the State of the Union.

WATTS: It's a special feeling, it is, yes, it is.

BLITZER: All right guys, stand by because we're going to be getting back to you as well. Up ahead tonight, we're following all of these developments. We're also following the seating chart. This is going to be fascinating for tonight's State of the Union address. It reflects clearly some big changes in Congress. We're going to show you what it looks like. ZAHN: And we're going to have a reality check on the president's past speeches. What he hoped for versus what he got. We're getting ready for President Bush's State of the Union speech. You can see it live here as well as the Democratic response. Please stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Talk about State of the Union address tonight. Presidents typically use their address to tick off the list of things they hope to accomplish, but the reality is, some wishes never become reality, or even close.

BLITZER: And no one is better at looking at these kinds of reality checks than our Joe Johns. He's standing by.

Joe, you have taken a look at last year's State of the Union address and come up with what?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Thanks, Wolf. For the record, the president can claim credit for a lot of things. And if you look over the years of this administration, he's pushed through that Medicare prescription drug plan for seniors, tax cuts, tightening up corporate ethics.

But like any administration, there are a lot of things the president asked for and did not get.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS (voice-over): You hear a lot about broken promises when the State of the Union speech rolls around. Truth is, the president's message to the Congress has never been about promises. It's a wish list. It's about recommendations to a co-equal branch of the government.

So here is part of the Bush wish list that hasn't gotten done over the years.

BUSH: We must make Social Security financially stable and allow personal retirement accounts for younger workers who choose them.

JOHNS: Fixing Social Security just hasn't happened. If the president tried to do this, he might risk losing his Republican majority in Congress. Oh, wait, too late.

Another recurring recommendation from the president has been to make permanent the tax cuts passed during his administration. Here is what he said in 2004.

BUSH: What Congress has given the Congress should not take away. For the sake of job growth, the tax cuts you passed should be permanent.

JOHNS: Never got done. The tax cuts are still scheduled to expire in three years. And now that Democrats are in charge of the Capitol, many say that won't change.

Other recommendations that haven't worked out -- medical malpractice reform, cheaper health care for people who change jobs, and one more that never quite stuck, though the administration and the Congress spent a lot of time on it -- immigration reform.

BUSH: And we must have a rational, humane guest worker program that rejects amnesty, allows temporary jobs for people who seek them legally, and reduces smuggling and crime at the border.

JOHNS: On that, too many of the president's own Republican allies said, no way.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS: Now, when you look back over the years, every president gets wishes turned down. Bill Clinton talked about fixing Social Security in a State of the Union address; the country is still waiting for that one -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The country, Joe, is still waiting for a lot of things as well. Joe, as I said, he's excellent in doing those kinds of reports. Joe Johns reporting for us.

And as we await the State of the Union address by the president and the Democratic response by Senator Jim Webb, we want to bring in our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley, and our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider.

ZAHN: Part of the best political team on TV.

BLITZER: That goes without saying.

ZAHN: And I don't say that just to be nice.

So we just heard John Roberts saying one of the frustrations that he's hearing from Republicans is this is a president tonight in some way that has to show the American public he's still relevant and prove to Congress that he's not a lame-duck president.

Isn't that a pretty big bar to cross over?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's a huge bar for tonight. I mean, he has to sort of set the stage and say we can do these things, but he's going to have to move forward. And it's not just the last two years. He doesn't have two years. He has got until maybe August. I mean, this is the earliest campaign we have seen for 2008. By summer, Wolf said earlier today, hasn't it already started? You ain't seen nothing yet. By summer, it's going to be in full force, and the president is going to be, you know, lose his microphone.

ZAHN: So what is the one issue that he can build a bridge with, with the Democrats, and that the Democrats can actually live up to the pressure on?

BILL SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it ain't going to be Iraq, because he's already said what he has to say on Iraq. What people want to hear from this president is I heard you, I heard what you had to say in the election, and something is going to change. Because that was what the voters said, loud and clear and defiantly, you have got to change. And they meant it on Iraq. He has already said two weeks ago, I'm not going to change the Iraq policy.

Well, he said he's going to change it, but he's going to intensify it. And the voters are very angry about that. So he has got to say he's changing on some other things. Global warming, perhaps, maybe some other policies, the economy. Taxes, health care. Something just to indicate, I heard you.

BLITZER: What kind of incentive do the Democrats on these other domestic issues the president is going to raise, health care insurance, for example, or global warming. What incentive do the Democrats have -- immigration reform -- to actually work with him and get legislation passed?

CROWLEY: Because they were elected to be the opposite of what they called the do-nothing Congress. The American people expect the Democrats to do something over the next two years. So there's a commonality of interests here. The president is looking at legacy, he is looking at, you know, to make himself relevant for the next two years. The Democrats are looking to prove that they can actually do something.

So there are areas, maybe immigration, we have heard that. There may be some areas around health care that they can do it. I wouldn't look for any major reforms -- Social Security reform, Medicare reform -- that won't happen. But around the edges of these big issues, there's some commonality they can use.

ZAHN: What is at stake for the Democrats here? An awful lot.

SCHNEIDER: There's lot at stake for them. Look, they can't run the country because Congress doesn't really run the country anymore, the president does. Everyone knows that. But what they can do is stake out positions, pass legislation and say to the president, you want to veto it, go ahead. We probably can't override your veto, because we don't have enough votes. But if we have a Democratic president and if we have more Democrats in Congress, then maybe we will be able to get these things done.

They can at least make a statement by passing legislation that is creative, that is popular, and essentially dare President Bush to oppose it.

BLITZER: So if nothing happens productively over the next two years, who will suffer the most going into the next presidential race, the Democrats or the Republicans?

SCHNEIDER: I think the Republicans, because the president is a Republican, and people expect -- they look to the president for leadership.

CROWLEY: I would agree with that. It's going to be the Republican. Because for the last eight years, they have had the majority in all -- up and down Pennsylvania Avenue. So that bleeds over into this. It will be the Republicans' hurt.

ZAHN: We look forward to seeing you in the next hour. Bill, Candy. Thanks. Appreciate it.

Up ahead, we're getting ready for President Bush's State of the Union address and the Democratic response. You're going to see them both here live, along with the best political team on television.

BLITZER: Also, the freshman Senator Jim Webb. He's the man that the Democrats have slated to deliver that Democratic response tonight. We're going to show you why the party chose him. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: So, as you might expect, Democrats carefully chose the person to give their party's response to President Bush tonight.

BLITZER: This was not an easy decision because a lot at stake. They came up with a senator who actually helped them put them in power and who has a very personal stake in this war in Iraq. Let's turn to our congressional correspondent, Dana Bash. And here's the question Dana. Why Senator Jim Webb?

BASH: Well that is the question. Democrats could have chosen their primetime platform tonight to showcase their new female House speaker or even the new Senate majority leader. Instead, they picked somebody who was sworn into the Senate just 18 day ago after winning a campaign wearing the combat boots of his son, who is serving in Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice-over): The cramped temporary office, remind you, he's a Senate newcomer. In office, barely three weeks.

(on camera): So I love what you've done with the place.

SEN. JIM WEBB (D), VIRGINIA: Well, you know, what can I tell you? I have a computer. That's a start.

BASH (voice-over): Yet Democrats picked Virginia's Jim Webb for a major role, responding to the president's State of the Union address. On one hand, it makes sense. Webb's come from behind victory in November gave Senate Democrats their one-seat majority. And the Republican-turned-Democrat has been against the Iraq war from the start.

WEBB: There are reasons the country decided to go in a different direction. And I will be someone who is able to put a face on those reasons. BASH: But Webb has not signed on to what Democrats call their unified Iraq position, begin troop withdrawal in four to six months. He says he's still looking for what he calls a responsible strategy.

WEBB: We have to reach the point where American combat troops are no longer on the streets of Iraq. The question is how you do that.

BASH: Webb wants Democrats to use their new power to restrict aid to Iraqis, but opposes blocking money for U.S. troops. The decorated Vietnam veteran became a Republican because Democrats cut funding when he was in combat.

WEBB: At the end of the Vietnam War, the Democratic Party really did lose its bubble and its credibility on how to deal with national security issues.

BASH: His ties to Vietnam are still strong. His wife was a refugee. He speaks Vietnamese.

WEBB: (SPEAKING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

BASH: Iraq is personal too. His son is a marine serving there.

(on camera): Don't you think that actually gives you a leg up in some way, that you really do have a personal investment?

WEBB: The responsibility of a leader is to act as though there were someone there that they had a personal responsibility toward. My beliefs on this would be the same either way.

BASH (voice-over): Webb insists it's nothing personal, but he is looking forward to telling the country why he thinks the president's policies are wrong.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: And the senator will, of course, deliver a blunt message on the Iraq war. But we're told he'll start with another issue that he and other new Democratic lawmakers think made a big difference in their campaign and that is economic fairness, the difference between the wealthy, the middle, and the working class in America -- Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Dana will be busy in the next hour as well. Dana Bash reporting.

ZAHN: It's interesting and meeting with some of the Democratic leaders today, including Senator Webb, talking about crafting his speech. And at first, Senator Reid said, "You know, we wrote it. And then we gave it to him, he completely rewrote it, and it's much better than the original version."

BLITZER: He's a former Navy secretary. There's no doubt he has got a lot on his mind right now.

And still ahead, Jack Cafferty. He always has a lot on his mind as well. How seriously will you take President Bush's State of the Union address tonight? Jack's standing by with your e-mail in "The Cafferty File."

ZAHN: Plus, American military families are among those who will be closely watching tonight. What are they hoping to hear? We're standing by for one of the most critical speeches President Bush will give this year. Please stay with us, you'll see it live right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: And Wolf and I are back with Jack -- Jack Cafferty. How are you?

CAFFERTY: I'm good. The question we asked tonight is how seriously will you take President Bush's State of the Union address tonight? Got a lot of mail.

Lewis writes: "I refuse to listen to Bush's message tonight. In my opinion, Congress should try him on war crimes and impeach him. He does not represent me."

Sal writes: "I'll certainly be taking the State of the Union speech more seriously than your biased, one-sided and ignorant comments. I'm not a 100 percent Bush supporter, but I can tell you I am a supporter of the office of the president. I know all the judgments and comments toward this president have not been fair and just."

Steve writes: "I hate to admit this, but I literally cannot watch this president speak. I distrust him so completely, he makes me so ashamed of our country, that I'll be watching a DVD this evening and I really resent that. I'll only have the stomach for the clips later tonight."

Lewis in Saratoga, California: "I think the numbers speak for themselves. Richard Nixon level approval, for Richard Nixon level forthrightness and Watergate-level abuse of presidential powers."

Chris in Highland, New York: "I'm one of the 47 million Americans living without health insurance, in debt because of school loans with high interest rates, and wondering why there are 12 million illegal immigrants living worry-free in our country. And you ask me if I'm going to take Bush's State of the Union address seriously? Are you serious."

And A. in Cherry Hill, New Jersey: "Add 51 9/11 mentions, 42 terrorisms and 35 bin Ladens. Mix well with spin, platitudes, 32 God references and serve. Speech, as usual, will be half-baked. The results will be dishonest leadership and poor TV. Not worth watching."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile where you can read more of them online. Paula, Wolf?

ZAHN: That's subtle e-mail. Thanks, Jack.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.voxant.com

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