As President Bush looked out over the House chamber at the happy, back-slapping lawmakers assembled for his State of the Union, he may have thought to himself, “Tonight may be as good as it’s going to get with Congress.”

The Republican president presented the Republican-dominated House and Senate with some complex programs and hard choices at which they may well balk, chief among them Social Security reform.

Many House members had hoped Bush would submit a complete plan with his name on it that he would then go out and sell to the public. The president can’t run again, but they have to in just under two years.

The Senate wants to welcome all sorts of ideas and develop a consensus bill, amenable to both wings of the GOP and a critical mass of Democrats.

The president seemed to be splitting the difference. He unveiled a detailed plan for private accounts, modeled heavily on the current federal employee savings plan, for workers under 55, but did not address in detail the broader and tougher question of long-term Social Security financing.

Private accounts will entail some borrowing. The White House disputes the usual $2 trillion figure, saying the cost will be more like $664 billion, but either amount pointed to the giant pink elephant in the room _ the federal deficit, pegged to set yet another record this year.

After four years of letting Congress spend what it wants, the second term Bush is resolved to attack the deficit by going after spending. His new budget, which goes to these same cheering lawmakers next Tuesday, will hold the growth in non-defense, non-homeland security to 1 percent, meaning many pet congressional programs would have to be slashed or eliminated.

Rather astonishingly, Bush did not veto a single bill in his first term. He’ll almost certainly have to in his second, with the inevitable bruised feelings on Capitol Hill.

Bush called on Congress to enact the rest of his agenda, including such difficult issues as medical malpractice lawsuits; tax reform, always a brutal task; and immigration reform, to which much of his own party is opposed.

The president gave few specifics as to how he would fulfill the promise of his expansive inaugural address to fight tyranny everywhere, but he had the afterglow of Sunday’s successful Iraqi elections.

His language indicated that he will not buckle to sniping from the Democratic left and set down a timetable for withdrawal or articulate an exit strategy. “We will stand by our Iraqi friends,” he affirmed, until such time as they have the forces to protect themselves.

The State of the Union speech, with its standing ovations and boisterous back-to-school spirit, is one of the capital’s great annual rituals. And for one night it is a happy time.

The hard realities will come soon enough.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)