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Post-game State of the Union guide

I’m writing before President Bush’s State of the Union speech; you’re reading after it has been delivered. So here are four questions you can use to help guide your evaluation of the remarks you’ve already heard.

I’m writing before President Bush’s State of the Union speech; you’re reading after it has been delivered. So here are four questions you can use to help guide your evaluation of the remarks you’ve already heard.

• Did President Bush offer a concrete plan to denuclearize North Korea and prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons?

In his 2002 State of the Union, Bush placed three nations on the axis of evil. Two of them have (or will soon have) nuclear weapons. We invaded the third. Whoops.

The nukes North Korea does have, and the ones Iran appears on the verge of getting, are a vastly greater threat to the United States than the ones Iraq never did have. But by misusing our armed forces, alienating our allies and casting doubt on American credibility, the president has dangerously degraded our capacity to deal with these twin swords of Damocles.

The world knows that our involvement in Iraq has taken any military option off the table. With our forces already overstretched, no foreign leader can take the threat of military action by the United States seriously.

The United States has few carrots or sticks with which to affect Iran. The Europeans have a number. But Bush has so disaffected our allies that obtaining their cooperation in dealing effectively with Iran has proved extremely difficult, even though Iranian nuclear missiles could reach their continent.

On the Korean peninsula, the situation is even more difficult to imagine. We’ve had troops in South Korea for 50 years to protect that country’s security, but the South Koreans are so angry at Bush’s political ineptitude we cannot even count on their support in dealing with the nuclear North.

After Sept. 11, Bush envisioned his destiny as a foreign-policy president. If he does not put forward a specific plan to stop Iran from going nuclear and to bring North Korea back from the nuclear precipice, he has no foreign policy worth the name.

• How will the president hold down healthcare costs?

He is expected to focus importantly on healthcare in this year’s address. Voters ought to be trembling. We can only hope Bush cleans up the mess he already made with his prescription-drug bill before creating a new one.

Early leaks suggest the president will be propounding a novel and politically damning theory — that the problem with healthcare is that people pay too little for what they receive. The president’s latest answer to our healthcare crisis: Increase costs more, so people buy less.

It’s twisted. Increase costs for individuals so that the abstraction we call the “economy” spends less. It’s an approach guaranteed to be as unpopular as last year’s Social Security cuts. Speaking of which …

• What will the president say and do about Social Security?

Last year it was on the verge of bankruptcy and reform was the president’s top domestic priority. But as Republicans learned that it would cut benefits, even they threw the president overboard as the public turned decidedly negative on the plan.

Does the president admit defeat or fight on for his extremely unpopular policy proposal? Or is last year’s top priority completely absent from this year’s speech?

• What will happen to the president’s approval ratings after the speech?

After his States of the Union, President Clinton got bounces of up to 10 points, averaging a 2.5-point boost. How will Bush stack up next to his predecessor?

The White House is, as usual, dampening down expectations. But the simple reality is that Bush needs this speech to provide him with some political lift. He should only get it if he deals effectively with the previous three questions.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.