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Political Analysis: A Preview Of The State Of The Union

Political Analysis: A Preview Of The State Of The Union
President Barack Obama delivers his first official State of the Union address tonight. KPBS political correspondent Gloria Penner will discuss the issues and topics that will be at the top of his agenda.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. President Barack Obama addresses a joint session of Congress and the American people tonight in his first official State of the Union speech. The date of the speech was not announced as early as usual by the White House, which made some speculate that President Obama was waiting to see if he could announce the passage of a healthcare bill in the address. But with the upset election in the Massachusetts Senate race going to a Republican, some say both the substance and tone of the president's State of the Union address has changed in recent days. Joining us now with a spectrum of opinion about what might be in the president's State of the Union message tonight is KPBS political correspondent Gloria Penner. Welcome, Gloria.

GLORIA PENNER (KPBS Political Correspondent): Well, I’m glad to be here, Maureen, and you’re absolutely right, a spectrum of opinion.

CAVANAUGH: Well, what is it that political observers say the president has to emphasize in tonight’s address.

PENNER: Well, most of them are looking at the polls, at the research that’s coming in. For example, the Pew Research Center released a survey this week on America’s priorities. Number one and number two are, you guessed it, economy and jobs. Healthcare ranks 8th by this time and a lot of people feel that’s because the debate over healthcare was so annoying to them that it was hard for people to understand exactly what was happening, and they pushed it way down on their list. So the president is expected to sharpen his economic message in a way that shows people he’s on their side because, you know, people have been turned off by that healthcare debate. The interesting thing, Maureen, is that the economy is growing but it’s not growing fast enough to bring down this widespread joblessness. As we know, the unemployment rate is at 10% and most economists say it could take until 2015 to turn it around to more normal levels. So, joblessness, cut the deficit. People are aware of this huge deficit that we’re carrying and so the White House is under considerable pressure to cut deficits, $1.4 trillion this year. It’s hard to imagine it. Those are the big ones and then, of course, there’s this pressure from the middle class. I think after Massachusetts it became very clear that the president has to address the middle class. And so he’s got a program. It’s going to help the middle class pay its bills, save for retirement, care for the kids, help with the college funds, care for aging parents, you know, something for everybody.

CAVANAUGH: Well, if we think back to last year’s address to congress—it wasn’t an official State of the Union address but the newly inaugurated President Obama announced an economic stimulus package that would help turn the economy around. Now, what is the verdict on that? Did it fail?

PENNER: Oh, well, it certainly depends on who you ask because there are still 30 million Americans either out of work, working part time or hanging on for dear life to anything that pays a buck. There are nearly 50 million people still without health insurance. A 100 million more are on shaky health insurance. There are still states ready to cut classes again and lay off needed workers. There are those that want to raise college tuition. So, you know, the White House says we staved off a Great Depression, and a lot of people say congratulations, but the president did run on a very conspicuous promise to change things for the better. Remember the message? Change and hope. But there are concerns that the nation lost 4.1 million jobs during his first year in office so it’s, again, the range of feelings about the economic stimulus package. Democrats say the stimulus has been a success because it pulled the economy out of a downward spiral but Republicans say, you know, show me. It failed to include significant private sector tax cuts to spur job growth, so it really didn’t help job growth, according to Republicans.

CAVANAUGH: So with this renewed idea – well, not renewed but this new emphasis on the trouble with the deficit, is there any chance that the president is going to ask for another stimulus package?

PENNER: I doubt in this speech that we’re going to hear him ask for another stimulus package. I mean, I might be wrong but there are small things that might be considered an economic stimulus: making energy efficient improvements to your home can reduce your tax bill, the tax credit for energy efficient windows and doors and air conditioners or something. But I have the feeling that we’re not going to see him lay out a big amount of money that’s going to come out of the federal government again to stimulate the economy because one of the things that people don’t like is the fact that so much money is being spent and the deficit is being increased.

CAVANAUGH: What about any programs to stimulate job growth?

PENNER: Well, the president’s probably going to offer a mixture of job-creating policies. Could be anywhere from modest tax breaks for companies that add staff to spending on specific green energy projects and infrastructure. Again, I think the words ‘a second stimulus’ will not pass his lips.

CAVANAUGH: Well, the White House just released, earlier this week, word that the president plans to announce a freeze on some government spending tonight. What do we know about that?

PENNER: Well, we understand that it’s going to be a three-year freeze on spending that would really apply to a relatively small portion of the federal budget, about $477 billion, which is only about a sixth of the federal budget. What it would do would involve discretionary programs, so-called discretionary programs. We don’t know exactly what those programs are going to be but we know which programs he is not going to touch. He’s not going to do any discretionary spending related to the military or to veterans or Homeland Security or international affairs, and also, the big programs like Social Security and Medicare. Those won’t be touched either. But his own party did not like this. They were kind of angered by it. And the Republicans are on a let’s wait and see. I love this quote from House Minority Leader John Boehner. He said, given Washington Democrats’ unprecedented spending binge, this is like announcing you’re going on a diet after winning a pie eating contest.

CAVANAUGH: Well, bring us back, if you would, Gloria, to healthcare because that was such a – that’s all we’ve really been hearing about for the last months. And with this emphasis now on, you know, freezing spending and being aware of the deficit, where does healthcare stand now that the Democrats have lost their filibuster-proof majority?

PENNER: Yeah, he’s got to go slow on healthcare. It’s clear as the fight now stands, it’s really unpopular with the American people. It’s either too much for some or not enough for others. There were those that were counting on the public option, and the public option just isn’t in this legislation. There are those who say it’s just too much government control. Mitch O’Connell, who is the Senate Minority Leader, says let’s start over. It is possible that the bill that the Senate passed could go to the House with some tweaking. Both Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker, and Majority Leader, Harry Reid, they continue to meet behind closed doors and they’re strategizing about budget reconciliation of the House and the Senate bills. This could allow them to force the healthcare bill through as part of the federal budget and that would circumvent Senate rules and then they would not have to worry so much about the new Republican senator from Massachusetts becoming the 41st vote. But the problem is that short-circuiting the usual legislative process at this point could mean a political backlash when election time comes, and the Democrats are worried enough now about losing seats in the midterm election.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s speak about that new Republican senator from Massachusetts. A Republican now holds the seat Ted Kennedy had for years and that’s taken away the Democrats’ 60 seat majority. Will that change what we hear tonight about the president’s congressional agenda for this year?

PENNER: Well, that message from Massachusetts was clear enough. It’s: enough is enough. Congress needs to do more to foster job creation this year, and that election sends the message we have to focus on jobs, the economy, and middle class families. You know, the majority of Americans, Maureen, consider themselves somewhere around the center and probably that’s why it is the center. You know, if they’re there, it’s the center. They were not happy to see what many perceived as a government takeover of healthcare and government involvement in the banking, in energy, in the automobile industry, in the insurance industry and all these other sectors. And then there was all that government spending that already added to the huge deficit so people took a look at that and the next thing you know, they elected a Republican from Massachusetts.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, well, what will President Obama point to, though, as his successes in this first year in office?

PENNER: Well, before all of this happened in Massachusetts…


PENNER: …the president’s first State of the Union address was expected to be a mostly positive progress report of his first year in office. This won’t be a celebration. And he’s not going to be able to say that the state of the union is great. What he needs to say is we’re going to get health reform done, we’re going to put people back to work, we’re going to turn Wall Street upside down so that it no longer has the power to crush the hopes and the dreams of homeowners and workers and small businesses. He’s going to say – He should say, we’re going to give our policy – we’re going to change our policy so that U.S. business has a level playing field in world trade, and this would encourage jobs. So I think that it’s all going to be what we are going to do rather than what we have done, except we did avoid the Great Depression.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you’re talking so much – with such a heavy emphasis on domestic issues. What might we hear, if anything, in the address tonight about Iraq or Afghanistan?

PENNER: I think that we may see Obama detailing his efforts to combat terrorism around the globe because that’s one of the things that scores pretty high in the polls. People are still worried about that, especially after the most recent attack on the plane flying into Detroit. But he might also address briefly the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the nuclear disputes with Iran and North Korea. I’m sure he’s going to talk about the devastating earthquake in Haiti. And, you know, he has a larger ambition, too, that would sort of restore the United States’ image around the world. I think we may see him talk about that. But I think it’s the bread and butter issues, the lost jobs, the difficulties in paying for college and retirement, I think that’s going to be the focus of his speech.

CAVANAUGH: Now the president is not the only one who speaks tonight. The Republicans have their response. And let’s take the last couple of minutes that we have here in talking about that. Do we know who’s going to be delivering that Republican response?

PENNER: We sure do. He is a newly elected Republican governor of Virginia. His name is Bob McDonnell, Robert F. McDonnell. And he was just inaugurated last week. He is the new model of Republican candidates, a moderate problem solver who can appeal to Democrats and Independents by talking about jobs, the economy, the kitchen table issues. And, you know, it’s interesting, during his campaign, unlike other GOP candidates in Virginia and elsewhere, he stayed mostly silent in his campaign on almost every bedrock conservative issue: abortion, guns, the sanctity of marriage, school choice. And that had served as the foundation of his political career, but he was mum on that. So we get a pretty good sense that he’s going to come out as a pretty moderate person. And he is expected, we think, to give a pretty positive speech.

CAVANAUGH: Do we know what he’s going to say? Any proposals? Because one of the things that we’ve heard recently is that the Republicans don’t have any proposals of their own.

PENNER: What he has said about what he’s going to say is, I look forward to discussing positive solutions to our shared challenges. So that word positive rings a bell.


PENNER: I mean, if you’re going to be positive, you’re not going to start dissing the president. So I don’t think we’re going to hear a lot of that. That’s what he ran on his – in his campaign. He prides himself on common sense, economic policies, and I think we’re going to hear a lot of that.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, Gloria, you’ve given us a good rundown. Thank you very much.

PENNER: You’re welcome. And you’ll be listening and watching tonight.

CAVANAUGH: Absolutely.


CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Gloria Penner. She is KPBS political correspondent, and host of Editors Roundtable and San Diego Week. KPBS Radio and Television will broadcast the State of the Union address tonight at six. And listen to These Days tomorrow at nine for more discussion and your opinions on the president’s State of the Union address. Coming up next on These Days, the pros and cons of a proposed windfarm in rural San Diego. That’s next on These Days here on KPBS.