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Local Analysis Of President Obama's State Of The Union

Local Analysis Of President Obama's State Of The Union
What were the highlights from President Barack Obama's first State of the Union address? We speak to a White House correspondent, a pair of local congressmen, and a political science professor about the speech.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. President Barack Obama's first official State of the Union address seemed at times like a pep rally last night. He often had difficulty finishing a sentence before being drowned out by applause from Democrats. Towards the end, even Republicans rose to their feet on several occasions. But in addition to being an apparent crowd-pleaser of a speech, the State of the Union address was heavy on substance. The President explained the more controversial policies of his first year in office, outlined programs for jobs and economic recovery and chastised politicians he claimed were more interested in winning elections than governing the nation. This morning we’ll be hearing a variety of voices giving their assessment of the State of the Union address but first, for details about last night’s speech, we turn to my guest Scott Horsley, White House correspondent for NPR. And, Scott, good morning. Thanks for joining us.

SCOTT HORSLEY (NPR White House Correspondent): Good to be with you, Maureen. Good morning to you.

CAVANAUGH: How would you describe the president’s tone last night?

HORSLEY: Well, it was interesting, you know, he – For the last 10 days or so, since the Massachusetts election and actually just before the Massachusetts election, the president had been striking this sort of populous tone and taking a lot of whacks at Wall Street banks, and that’s not a tone that really sits very naturally with Barack Obama. He’s just not a fire and brimstone sort of populist. And what struck me about last night is that he was really sort of more the Barack Obama that we saw during the campaign and that we’ve seen for much of his first year in office, which is the somewhat professorial explainer, someone who’s not afraid to talk about issues in some detail, not enormous detail but not afraid to get a little bit into the weeds of government policy. And so in that sense, you know, the headline on our local tabloid newspaper here, this – today was ‘Obama Reboots.’ And I think this was not a reboot where you put in a new piece of software, it’s not Obama 2.0, it’s the same old software, you just sort of turned it off and turned it on and you’re hoping you have a better result the second time around.

CAVANAUGH: And, of course, Scott, you mentioned Massachusetts, that’s the election – the upset victory of a Republican who took the Senate seat long held by Ted Kennedy, and there were many pundits who said that they expected lots of conciliatory gestures during the State of the Union address because of that upset victory. Did you hear that last night?

HORSLEY: Well, the president certainly did acknowledge the Massachusetts result as he had – as we had been warned that he would. He said that the election season and election fever has begun earlier than usual in this election year. And, of course, that’s going to color a lot of what happens or doesn’t happen on Capitol Hill between now and November. And there were overtures the president made to Republicans. I thought it was sort of remarkable that he threw them a number of bones, talking about energy policy, he said he was willing to back a lot more nuclear plants, he opened the door to offshore oil and gas drilling but at the same time he said that would have to be coupled with some sort of comprehensive energy legislation which presumably means something along the lines of cap and trade, which many of the Republicans are very much against. But, yeah, he did – he made some overtures to the GOP. I don’t – it’s hard to say for sure that that’s because of the Massachusetts election but, of course, the political reality is now that it’s going to take at least one Republican vote to get anything done in the Senate that the president wants to get done.

CAVANAUGH: Now the issue that the president talked most about last night was the economy. He encouraged congress to pass a jobs bill soon. Is the Jobs Bill now the president’s number one legislative priority?

HORSLEY: Yes, and I think if he’d had his druthers it would have been his number one public focus for some time now. It’s not the case that the president is oblivious to the 10% unemployment rate in this country and it’s not the case that he has been ignoring jobs up until now. But much of his public attention has been elsewhere, whether it was dealing with the interminable healthcare conversations or reviewing how we failed to catch the Christmas Day would-be bomber before he got on that Northwest Airlines plane. You know, he’s been pulled in a lot of different directions and hasn’t been able to be out publicly banging the jobs drum as much as the White House would’ve liked. And so I think he’s – he is very much banging that drum now and in public and on stage and wants to be seen not just – It’s not just that he wants to do something about jobs, he wants to be seen and wants everybody to know he’s doing something about jobs. But he’s not doing a whole lot. I mean, you know, compared to something like the $787 billion Stimulus Bill that he was pushing a year ago at this time, the things that he’s talking about doing now are really sort of small potatoes.

CAVANAUGH: Now before the speech, many people were saying they expected the president to back away from his healthcare reform goals. Did he do that in this speech?

HORSLEY: No. He declared that he was not going to walk away from healthcare, that we’ve come too far down the path and we’ve gotten so close to passing something. I mean, it’s obviously tantalizingly close for the Democrats, who just before the Massachusetts election, were really trying to nail down the final compromises between the House and Senate versions, only to see all that go up in smoke. So he said he’s not going to walk away from that effort and, obviously, the problems with the status quo in healthcare have not gone away. But at the same time, he did not offer any particular roadmap of how he expects to get something through a Senate where it’s now going to take some Republican support and that Republican support has been conspicuously absent until now. He didn’t, for example, say I’m going to sit down now with three or four Republican leaders and try to work out a deal. Or I – Here’s my proposal to win over some Republican support. Or, we’re going to go an alternative route and try to push this through in reconciliation. Or I’m calling on the members of the House to pass the Senate bill. He didn’t do any of those things. He said, everybody should take a deep breath and give this a second look. We’re not walking away from it but I’m not exactly telling you how we’re going to pass it either.

CAVANAUGH: We’re talking about President Barack Obama’s first official State of the Union address, and I’m speaking with Scott Horsley, White House correspondent for National Public Radio. There was a lot said before the speech again about the three-year budget freeze that was leaked before the address was made. Tell us about that and how the president talked about it last night.

HORSLEY: Well, this is something that the White House made it known a couple of days ago is going to be in the president’s budget when it comes out on Monday, that in 2011 and 2012 and 2013, he’s going to try to hold the line on a fraction of the budget, about one-eighth of the overall federal budget, that is discretionary spending that isn’t tied to national security. So Defense is excluded and big programs like Social Security and Medicare are excluded. But for the remaining one-sixth of the budget, he wants to keep the bottom line flat for the next three years and this is a portion of the budget that has been growing at about 5% per year. Over the next decade, the White House says, they would be able to save $250 billion by doing that. Now that’s a lot of money to almost anyone but it’s, of course, a tiny fraction of the deficit. So he’s getting some credit from deficit hawks for sort of taking a step in the right direction, although everyone says it’s kind of a baby step. He’s also getting some criticism from those on the left who say, gosh, you know, on the one hand we’re trying to use government dollars to stimulate the economy and now you’re talking about pulling back on that effort. To which the White House says, hey, we’re not talking about doing anything until 2011, so it’s not going to happen short term and even the White House says, you know, it’s not really a lot of money we’re talking about here so it’s not going to have a big macro-economic affect. The other thing some people have pointed out is that John McCain had called for a similar spending freeze back during the campaign and was criticized by then candidate Obama who said that was, you know, using a sledgehammer instead of a scalpel. What the Obama folks say is that while the bottom line of this portion of the budget will be flat, that’s not to say that individual programs will be flat-funded. Some programs will get more money. Education, for example, is going to get considerable increase in its budget. And then other programs, consequently, will see a loss. And the White House says this is just like a family sitting around the kitchen table when the resources are flat or down, you know, difficult choices have to be made.

CAVANAUGH: Speaking of education, in the speech last night, the president seemed to tie the nation’s full economic recovery with a expanded education system, more money for education. Tell us about that.

HORSLEY: Well, yes, in his – in the current budget, the president has a lot of money for education and he wants to have more in the upcoming budget. And this is actually an area where there has been some cooperation and some consensus between Democrats and Republicans. The president has, I won’t say broken with the Teachers Unions, but has perhaps moved Teachers Unions along in a direction where he’s insisting in order to qualify for some of this increased federal funding, there has to be more accountability for teacher performance. Some states, including California, have had to change their laws so that student test scores can be used as one measure, not the only measure, but one measure of how teachers are doing so school districts can identify which teachers are having the best results and which ones maybe need some extra help. So there’s actually a fair amount of common ground between Democrats and Republicans on the education front, and it was kind of surprising, both the president and the Virginia governor, who delivered the GOP response, used almost identical language in saying, you know, we – everyone agrees that young people in America should get a good education and that the quality of one’s education should not depend on where you happen to live or your zip code.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, Scott, since you are in the nation’s capitol, how was this State of the Union address received in Washington?

HORSLEY: It kind of depends on which side of the aisle you’re on.

CAVANAUGH: That’s very true.

HORSLEY: The Democrats received it quite well and the Republicans, I think, were pretty critical. I mean, there were portions of the speech, as you say, that even the Republicans stood and applauded for but despite the president’s renewed call for bipartisan cooperation, I haven’t seen, in the initial reaction from the GOP, any great groundswell of cooperation and I haven’t seen a great deal of outreach from the Democrats either, so I – much as I would like to see a more – a bipartisan spirit on Capitol Hill, and some of the voters around the country that I’ve been talking about all echo the president in his call for that, I don’t think there’s a great deal of realistic hope in Washington that we’re going to see that.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to…

HORSLEY: Although…


HORSLEY: Although, tomorrow – tomorrow, the president is going to Baltimore to address the Republican House retreat and you heard him call in the speech last night for monthly meetings with both Democratic and Republican leaders in congress, so we’ll see how those go.

CAVANAUGH: And he smiled and he said, I know that you guys are really looking forward to that.


CAVANAUGH: Scott Horsley, thank you so much.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Scott Horsley. He is White House correspondent for National Public Radio. And when we return, we’ll talk with two of San Diego’s members of congress, first Congressman Bob Filner and later in our conversation, Congressman Brian Bilbray. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS, and we’re talking about President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address last night. I’d like to welcome my next guest, Congressman Bob Filner. He is, of course, a Democrat representing California’s 51st Congressional District. And, Congressman Filner, welcome to These Days.

BOB FILNER (Representative, 51st Congressional District, California): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder what your assessment is of the feeling in the chamber last night. I noted in my introduction that the Democrats often had interrupted President Obama. He couldn’t even finish a sentence before there was applause from Democrats. What was it like for you in the House?

FILNER: Well, you know, I think at the beginning there was nervousness. I mean, you know, the conventional wisdom is the Democrats are facing problems and the president had to sort of reset the agenda. And I think by the end there was a lot of confidence in him, a lot of sense that he was going the right way. It was a very powerful speech. You know, there were times, especially at the very end, you know, you just could hear a pin drop. That’s unusual in the House of Representatives that people are so quiet that you can actually hear someone talk. So I think he – You know, the first part of his speech was a very powerful restatement of his economic policies, the necessity for creating jobs and give the middle class security. And I was very pleased that he had at least a paragraph or so that said, hey, we gotta do this healthcare reform, the American people need it.

CAVANAUGH: What were some of the ideas besides the ones you’ve mentioned that the president talked about you particularly liked?

FILNER: Well, you know, I think he – when he was connecting with people’s, you know, everyday problems, making sure your kids can afford to go to college and making sure loans were available at a reasonable rate and over a reasonable time period, the stress on tax relief for middle class. I think these particularly go over well with people who are trying to get by, you know, work hard, get their kids to school, and create opportunity for them. I mean, the sense that we have to create opportunity for everyone was I think key and I think everybody would agree on that.

CAVANAUGH: Now, during the State of the Union speech, the president acknowledged I don’t if you could say some mistakes but perhaps some things that he could’ve done better. One of those was explaining the healthcare issue to people. Do you agree the president could’ve done a better job?

FILNER: I think we all could’ve done a better job, those of us who support that. I mean, this is a moral issue. I think that Americans should have a right to affordable, quality healthcare, regardless of their economic or even health needs or health conditions. And I think it got very complicated, it got caught up in deal making on Capitol Hill that people have such a revulsion to, and rather than a clear statement of a moral necessity, it got caught up in the special interest and other things. So I think we have to reset that but I think we have to do this and insure 30 million additional Americans and make sure that the insurance companies can’t prohibit signing you up because of preexisting condition or take you off when you get too ill or too expensive to treat. I think all Americans want that and I think we’re going to try to – we’re going to pass something that will in effect do that.

CAVANAUGH: Congressman Bob Filner is on the line with me. Congressman Filner, the president pointed out last night the belief that the stimulus package saved the country from a worse recession. Many Republicans disagree with that. Can you tell us…

FILNER: Just tell me when I gotta be in there.


CAVANAUGH: Can you tell us some of the things the stimulus actually has done for San Diego?

FILNER: Well, I’m not sure it’s done what it could. We’ve saved lots of jobs, lots of jobs in school systems, lots of jobs in construction, lots of jobs in state government. But I think it should’ve been more targeted to community needs, whether it was community banks rather than big banks or community – small businesses because it was too targeted at the big guys and not enough at the regular people who are having trouble with their homes being foreclosed or keeping their job or having their small business revitalized. So I would – and I hope that if we do another jobs bill, which looks likely, that we really target it at the local communities. Rather than trickle down, we should be percolating up.

CAVANAUGH: One of the things the president was talking about last night was how politically fractured Washington is and he aimed his comments largely at the Republicans but also at the Democrats. Is there too much politicking all the time? Are people running for reelection constantly and not attending to the business of the nation in your estimation?

FILNER: No, I don’t think that’s true. Look, the parties represent different interests and we’re both – both of us – representatives of both parties are both passionate about that. I think there’s a – You’ll hear noise in the back, by the way. I’m just getting on a plane to head to San Diego.


FILNER: But the Republicans represent mainly the upper middle class suburbs of America, and they’re not as concerned about education and healthcare because they already have that for their kids. While the Democrats, by and large, represent multi-ethnic cities where there’s a real need for healthcare and education and opportunity and so we’re looking at the – at Washington, at the world differently. And both of us represent the interests of our constituents and we’re both – both sides are very passionate. That’s what political parties are, represent, you know, the people who need it.

CAVANAUGH: And my final question to you because I can hear, Congressman Filner, you’re very busy. The president told Democrats, asked them please not to run for the hills, to get their agenda passed in this congress. Do you take that to heart?

FILNER: Oh, yeah. Look, we have 59% of the seats in the Senate. We got fif – about 60% of the seats in the House. We should be able to do things that we promised when we were running, that President Obama promised, when we have a majority. And the American people expect us to govern and that’s what we should do.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you for taking the time for speaking – to speak with us…


CAVANAUGH: …today. Thanks so much.

FILNER: And I’m heading for the warmth of San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Thank you.

FILNER: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Congressman Bob Filner. He’s a Democrat from California’s 51st Congressional District. We are talking about President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address and now on the line with me is Congressman Brian Bilbray. He is, of course, a Republican and he represents California’s 50th Congressional District right here in San Diego. And Congressman Bilbray, welcome.

BRIAN BILBRAY (Representative, 50th Congressional District, California): Thank you. I’m freezing to death and I’m all broken-hearted I can’t join my dear friend Bob Filner at coming home this weekend but duty calls.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let me start by asking you what I asked Congressman Filner, what did you think of the president’s speech?

BILBRAY: I thought it was, you know, classic great communicator. I mean, this guy’s the best communicator we’ve had since Ronald Reagan and I think everybody agrees with that. He was much more casual and almost flippant to some degree and I think it’s because it showed that, you know, he’s under a lot of stress. I mean, he’s had a real bad couple of months. It’s been really tough on him. And I think he sort of overcompensated on that by trying to act as casual and as upbeat as possible. A lot of it seemed very, very forced but you can’t expect anything else. I mean, he – you know, the young man’s had a real tough time.

CAVANAUGH: I don’t know how many people react to stress by becoming casual but if that’s your assessment, that’s fine. The president has been criticized for trying to push the healthcare bill through congress and for the debt he’s created in his first year of office. Do you think the president said the right things last night that could possibly satisfy some of those criticisms?

BILBRAY: Nah, I think the one thing, he wasted time trying to use cooked numbers on trying to say that mandatory universal healthcare was going to save money. I think everybody knows that when you talk about six years of service and ten years of taxes in the first cycle, that that’s not a viable number to look to. You’ve got to look to a ten and ten. But I think that he missed a real opening on the healthcare issue and that is, I think everybody would agree to preexisting conditions being eliminated, eliminate the ability of insurance companies to, you know, to cancel people out when they get sick. But then not only hit the insurance companies but take on the other bad guy in the game and that’s the trial lawyers that you need tort reform as the voters in did California. You’re talking $120 billion a year that we could save money that could go to helping people get coverage and get those essential services. But Washington has to be willing to take on their buddies. The Republicans have got to be willing to tell the insurance companies, sorry, but you’re going to have to make a major contribution for the good of the country. But then the Democrats have to look at their big contributors, the trial lawyers, and say, sorry, guys, this is going to be a well that you can’t keep pulling out of, that we need this resources (sic) for healthcare. You can’t provide cost effective healthcare in the United States while trial lawyers are running the operating room, and we know that. I know that. I was a county supervisor. You remember, I operated…


BILBRAY: …the healthcare system and supervised it for the poor working class in our community, and that is a major issue. And if both sides are willing to tell their friends, sorry, but we’re going to do the right thing, I think we can work this out and it can work.

CAVANAUGH: So when the president asked Republicans for ideas about healthcare reform and he’s going to start meeting with Republican leaders, do you think he’s going to be hearing things like that from Republicans like you and Republicans in the Senate?

BILBRAY: Actually, we invited the president to meet with us this weekend. We’re going to go up to Baltimore. The president has accepted the invitation, as far as I know, and that is one of those issues we’re going to address. We’re going to say, look, we can do preexisting conditions, we can do – make sure that the insurance companies can’t cancel you out, but we’ve got to put limitations in on pain and suffering and those other issues like California has. You know, the bill that was passed in the House that was sold as being a consumer protection bill actually had in it punishment for California because we have damages limits and we put limits on attorneys. And I think those are the kind of things we can work together. But I think we can also work together on things like the issue that the president brought up is that if you want to have a clean environment, if you want to eliminate the emissions that are causing greenhouse gases, you’ve got to, as stated by the U.N. Council on Climate Change, understand that next generation nuclear has to be a major portion of that. You just can’t shut down those coal plants fast enough unless you replace them with production. And, actually, here was one point where the president is absolutely right. You don’t have to choose between the environment and the economy. The most cost effective way of generating electricity outside of building dams is to go with fourth generation nuclear power. The waste issue has been addressed by France for over 20 years. They’ve reprocess (sic), they reuse their fuel. And the president was brave enough to stand up and say that, and I’ve got to applaud him for that because I think a lot of us want to be politically safe but we’re not willing to stand up and speak out on things like that, things like we need to change regulations to allow clean technologies. One of our biggest problems, like in Cali – San Diego, our scientists develop algae fuel but they’ve got to take the production of it to New Mexico because California regulations would take so long to build the production system that now the governor is going to look at trying to create a new law that waives the CEQA requirements for climate change legislations. That kind of government reform we need, where government changes its way of doing things, not just asking everybody else to do it.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Republican Congressman Brian Bilbray. We’re talking about the president’s State of the Union address last night. And, Congressman Bilbray, I’m wondering what you think about the president’s call for a jobs bill?

BILBRAY: Well, I think the jobs bill problem is the credibility of Washington doing this has gone right down the tubes. The last stimulus bill, you’re seeing story after story of how the money’s misused, how big guys are walking off with a bundle. I think one of the stimulus bills that we could’ve done better on and we still can do and be fiscally responsible is talk about the fact that the transportation projects have a way of being paid for over the next decade or two, and that is because we have a revenue source through the transportation taxes so what we do is move those projects up, build things like the trolley, build things like new bridges and new roads because we can now – we know there’s a revenue source that’s coming in over the next two decades that would pay for that. A lot of these other projects are just throwing money at the problem and that’s where the American people are very nervous. They’re looking at a trillion dollars here, a trillion dollars there, and they know their grandchildren are being saddled with this expense with nobody talking about how you can pay it down. At least with the transportation components, the building infrastructure that helps to drive the economy, that we have a dedicated source of revenue to be able to pay for that without going back to the American people and forcing them to put – take more out of their pocket through a – through some kind of new tax scheme.

CAVANAUGH: And also the call that the president made to make education a national priority, do you have an ideological problem with that? Because I know sometimes Republicans feel education should be a local issue.

BILBRAY: Oh, it is a local issue, it always has been. We just got to remember the great separation of powers in our country are not between the three branches of the federal government. In fact, I get kind of upset at Republicans always saying government this and government that. They’ve got to be reminding the public we’re talking federal government; we’re not talking state, we’re not talking county, we’re not talking city, we’re not talking school board. And the fact is, education has always been a local component just as much as water and power has been a local component. The federal government can help, though. We need to talk about what we’re doing about science for teachers, you know, making sure that there aren’t laws or regulations in neighborhoods that say that a science teacher can’t be paid more than a physical ed teacher or a history teacher, that those kind of regulations are really holding back this country when we desperately need the best science, the best paid teachers out there. And arbitrary limitations on, you know, how much you’re willing to reward people for being great teachers, I think, are absolutely absurd. And that is one of those challenges we need to work on. But we’ve just got to understand as a local school board member reminded me, less than 4% of education money comes from Washington. That’s about how much influence we should have. And the fact is, we need to make sure there’s more effective use of our education funds. But Washington, all I got to say is, I’ve had to live in this town for a few years, maybe we ought to lead through example. The Washington educational institution is one of the worst in the world and maybe if we want to tell San Diego and the rest of the country how we should improve our education system, maybe we should set example by doing something about the Washington, D.C. system which no member of congress sends their children to public schools here, not one.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you in closing, Virginia governor Robert McDonnell delivered the Republican response. What did you think of his speech? And just his presentation of it and also the substance.

BILBRAY: Well, I think that his presentation, like everybody said, I said it was a respectable presentation. It wasn’t too harsh. And I think that it basically just gave the counterpoints. I think one of the things, though, that people are tired of on both sides, now the president talks about the partisanship but even he took partisan shots. And I think that on both sides, I think that if you really want to take the high ground and you really want people to embrace your message, both the president, the governor and all of us have got to stop finding excuses of taking shots at the other guy. I mean, your mother could’ve told you years ago that it doesn’t make you look any better to put the other person down. And I wish people in Washington and more people at elected office would remember that. The fact is, we need to do, you know, basically give more answers and basically point less fingers.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you. Thank you for joining us today. I really appreciate it.

BILBRAY: Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Republican Congressman Brian Bilbray. We’re going to take a short break and when we return, we’ll continue our conversation about the State of the Union address last night. I’ll be speaking with Samuel Popkin, professor of Political Science at UCSD, and be taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. President Obama delivered his first official State of the Union address last night. He talked about jobs and healthcare and education and banks and getting along and actually passing legislation in Washington. We’re taking your calls. We want to hear what you have to say about the State of the Union address. What did you think? Was there something you wanted to hear that you didn’t hear? You can give us a call at 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. I’d like to welcome my next guest. He is Samuel Popkin, professor of Political Science at UCSD, with a focus in Voting Behavior, Political Economy and Comparative Politics. His most recent book is "The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns." And Professor Popkin, thank you for being with us.

SAMUEL POPKIN (Political Science Professor, University of California San Diego): Oh, it’s always a pleasure with my home team.

CAVANAUGH: Well, what was the one thing you heard last night – Well, let me ask you, was there one thing you heard last night that really struck you?

POPKIN: Well, I saw that he moved as much as he could to jobs from bailout and tried to explain with some but not, I don’t think, great success just why keeping men making hundreds of millions in bonuses afloat was important for the rest of us. It’s a very difficult thing to explain or sell or justify. It may be true but it’s not easy to explain. You saw Congressman Filner irritated about why not more small banks, just the big banks, so it’s a very complicated food chain. If – I kept thinking when the refineries are going bankrupt, if you keep the refineries going we all understand then we’ll have gas.


POPKIN: If we don’t have gas, everything shuts down. But it’s hard to explain why keeping Goldman Sachs afloat is important.

CAVANAUGH: And did he do that job, do you think?

POPKIN: Not completely but he at least made it clear we all hate it and so it’s not something we do because we like these people.


POPKIN: And I think that was the best he could do was root canal.

CAVANAUGH: The root canal reference, exactly right. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727 about last night’s State of the Union address. Let’s take a call. Richard is calling in Encinitas. Good morning, Richard, and welcome to These Days.

RICHARD (Caller, Encinitas): Good morning. Thanks for taking my call. I’m just wondering about all the lobbyists in Washington who control our government and our Representatives and our Senators. Who controls those people and why do they have so much control over our government?

CAVANAUGH: The lobbyists in Washington.

RICHARD: The lobbyists.

CAVANAUGH: What was – Can you say your question again? Didn’t quite get it.

RICHARD: I want to know how the lobbyists are controlling our Senators and Representatives in congress and not getting anything done, and it’s all the special interests who get their bills passed.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that, Richard. And Professor Popkin.

POPKIN: Well, I think they’re making it clear that it’s – in every one of these cases, they have to represent more than just money. They have to be able to represent voters and small businesses or big businesses. And the lobbyists that really get the power in Washington are the ones that can affect primaries. It’s – Some of it is money but a lot of it is mobilizing voters on whether it’s the environment, jobs or taxes. And they’re at each other’s throat.

CAVANAUGH: And there was a certain challenging aspect to the president’s speech last night when he addressed the politicians in front of him, talked about the lobbyists, talked about the political stagnation in Washington and basically told them that they were there to do the business of the people. Do you think that will have any effect?

POPKIN: Absolutely not.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, tell us why.

POPKIN: Well, you know, every challenger from the outside running for president talks about hope and change, going back to Dewey, Eisenhower, Nixon, and then you get there and the reality is you may be a president but all you can do is either sign a bill or veto a bill in the end. And you have to – if you say no, it takes 67 senators, if you say yes, it takes 50. And there’s not a lot you can do to convince people with their own interests, whether it’s a Ben Nelson or Bob Filner or, you know, Joe Lieberman. Everybody has the right for their piece of the action and that’s the frustration because we vote for the challenger believing we’re going to get what we vote for when we vote for him, not that we’re going to get somebody who can then try and get his own party to go along.


POPKIN: And that’s…


POPKIN: That’s really the problem.

CAVANAUGH: Well, we heard even from Congressman Bilbray that there were some olive branches that the president offered to Republicans like an increased – going towards nuclear power again, investing in small business, things of that nature. Do you think that that might help build support with Republicans?

POPKIN: Only on those issues. No matter how many power plants he builds, I don’t think he’s going to get the Republicans to go along with him on taxes or on healthcare. And I don’t think, no matter how many things he does for the AMA, that’s going to affect how the insurance companies feel. I mean, these – The caller’s question about all the special interest, they are interest and they are both jobs and money.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Samuel Popkin, professor of Political Science at UCSD. We’re talking about the State of the Union address last night, and taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. I’ve heard, Professor Popkin, that one of the reasons that things may not change in Washington for the better is that what many are calling the obstructionist policy of the Republicans basically voting no on just about everything seems to be working for them politically. Do you share that idea?

POPKIN: Well, I think it’s working enough on the big ones when they can explain that they can – if they can present the tax – the healthcare as taxing people with healthcare to give it to people without, they win. If they – if the president can convince people that everybody’s healthcare benefits, then he wins. And so far, it’s a standoff.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Let’s take a call. Stephanie is calling from University City. Good morning, Stephanie. Welcome to These Days.

STEPHANIE (Caller, University City): Good morning. I’m struck not only last night but in general with this presidency and I’m not coming from a particular fan base or because I was an Obama supporter or anything like this. But I’m struck and it struck me again last night when I was listening. As a populate, we expect a tremendous amount from a president, and this is an individual man, an individual person, and I’m always kind of impressed by somebody who’s willing to even take on this role, honestly, because in our system of checks and balances—and I’m a classically trained student of political science, fascinated by the entire process—he’s – What I hear is that it’s not the same rhetoric. I hear someone who’s trying to make changes and trying to do what may be, granted, in his administration’s opinion what’s best for the country. But I see effort, I see and hear somebody who’s trying to do their best to work in the system that we have. We…

CAVANAUGH: Stephanie, let me get a reaction to what you’ve said because Stephanie’s saying that she’s not hearing the same old same old from this president. Do you…

POPKIN: I think that’s why he talked about the olive branches. I think Stephanie very, very clearly articulated the dilemmas and the hopes and why presidents gives the State of the Union, because this gives people a chance to remind them – the president now can tell people, this is what I’m trying to put together, this is where I’m trying to go. And he can articulate it and try and generate a momentum around him and keep it out of the squabble. I think she articulated it better than I could’ve.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, then let’s take another call. Vicki is calling from Chula Vista. Good morning, Vicki, and welcome to These Days.

VICKI (Caller, Chula Vista): Oh, hi, good morning. I just called to say that I see Obama trying. I just think he’s trying – he’s steering his efforts in the wrong direction. Basically, I think he’s trying to appease congress and not so much the American people. I see him put forth a healthcare plan, well, really no plan at all, but at the onset, he negated universal healthcare which everybody – or at least single payer, which everybody knows and wants, I think. And it’s the only way we’re going to save money in the system. He – Last night, he talked – I loved at the end of the speech, I thought when everybody was silent, he had some very good words there but as far as like the, you know, letting the coal go on and the restarting the nuclear plants and – and offshore drilling, I mean, I just believe that we’re a lot cleaner than congress is out here. We know – seem to know what’s needed and what’s right, and he doesn’t.

CAVANAUGH: Vicki, I want to get some reaction to your comments. Thank you so much for calling. Vicki seems to be coming at it from the left spectrum of the political spectrum. I wonder if the president’s left wing of his own party will be pleased with his speech?

POPKIN: Well, there’s a problem because a lot of people who voted for him thought that he could do what he wanted without the congress, and now he’s in this position of the first year president who has to get the Filners and the Bilbrays to go along with him. And so Vicki legitimately worries is he going to ditch me for them or is somehow he going to work with them and still remember me. And that’s where you start to worry, whose side is he really on now that he has to deal with these guys. And it’s the dilemma of every first year president unless you have a 911 (sic) or a Pearl Harbor.

CAVANAUGH: I’m interested, Professor Popkin, being a professor of political science, how do you – how does this first State of the Union speech compare with some others?

POPKIN: I think it was his transition to sober reality from a plan of hope and change and his ideals. And he is a different kind of politician compared to other Democratic presidents but the congress isn’t that different. And he’s having to find a way to figure out how much of what he wants can he do and still get things through the Democratic congress that isn’t that different from the last 20 years. And that’s where he needs to keep Vicki and Bob Filner at the same time with him, and that’s what he’s moving towards. And I think the way he talked about jobs and energy and the root canal was his attempt to reconcile these two very different realities.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Fred is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Fred, and welcome to These Days.

FRED (Caller, San Diego): Thank you. Thank you for taking my call. My observation is that Obama is a great orator. He was terrific on the campaign trail and he was terrific last night. But my concern is will we see any results different than we’ve seen the first – in his first year. He had all these great ideas, yet he, instead of leading the healthcare debate, as an example, he delegated it to congress. For heaven sakes, he had the public behind him and he blew it. And my question is, does he have the leadership skills or is he again going to delegate it to others to get this done?

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that, Fred. And would you comment, Professor Popkin?

POPKIN: Yes, there’s a really interest – well, Fred and the caller before about the opinion and the people are very, very similar calls. Let me point out that although we don’t have the healthcare that every Democrat has tried for since Truman in ’48, this is the first president that’s got a bill through both houses except for Medicare. So he didn’t really – By giving the reality of the congress can do part of what they want and he can’t get exactly what he wants no matter what the poll says, he’s come closer—now, he doesn’t have it—but he – compare Bill Clinton who said, I will lead on this and I and my wife will put it together and not listen to the special interests. They never got a bill passed anywhere. He got two bills passed, he won’t get reconciliation, it appears. So I don’t know if you can say doing it the leading way as opposed to being realistic about what you would sign would do any better.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So trying it this different way got him actually farther than in the past.

POPKIN: Not maybe far enough and, you know, just think how different it would’ve been if Senator Kennedy had lived 8 more months.

CAVANAUGH: Yes. Well, I wonder, from your knowledge of State of the Union speeches, Professor Popkin, what kind of momentum, if any, do presidents usually get from them? Let’s break it down, with the American people or with the congress?

POPKIN: In the short run, a good State of the Union gives the president center stage again as opposed to the Speakers of the House and the Majority and Minority Leaders in the Senate. So his framing of the issues, the unpleasant necessity of the bailout, the time for a jobs bill, the time for the infrastructure is on the table and it’s on our minds. Now whether that lasts a year, a month or three months, I can’t say. I don’t have a crystal ball. But he’s clearly restored some of the initial hope. The initial response about jobs was quite strong in the overnight polls, and we’ll see if it lasts and if it can convince anybody to do things they wouldn’t have done a month ago.

CAVANAUGH: But do you think the elections just overshadow all momentum that he might have in the congress?

POPKIN: Yeah, but that’s always been true from the day – from, you know, George Washington’s day, that they all say it’s not about the election when it always is. But I think his – what he’s doing is, hopefully, giving the Democrats better defense and more – and better cover for the unpleasant parts of the spending and more justification for going forward with a more active program in the next year.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve heard what you’ve been saying, Professor Popkin, and it all is – seems very reasonable and of course you know about this stuff inside and out. Is there anything that this president might do perhaps to get more Republicans to work with him on his agenda?

POPKIN: Frankly, no. That’s the reality of Washington. Right now, the reality is both – this is what Demo – people used to call for responsible parties that acted like parties. Well, now we don’t like it.

CAVANAUGH: Because people are just sticking to their guns…

POPKIN: Right.

CAVANAUGH: …and not compromising.

POPKIN: Look, before the cold war, the president signed bills and only Teddy Roosevelt and then FDR really got to do a lot of what they wanted and push things where they wanted them with – when there was a huge crisis or a need to do something big. The reality is, congress is more powerful than we acknowledge, and the president is a sixth of the votes. You know, he can say yes or no.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you so much for speaking with us even though you’ve sort of ended on – any sobering reality. Thank you so much for speaking with us, Professor Popkin.

POPKIN: Let me just – and…

CAVANAUGH: Yes, please.

POPKIN: …as I was just pointing out that he did stop the bleeding and stop all the declines. It’s hard for people to appreciate that. And almost no first year president looks good. It’s always in the third year when you find out if they’ve gotten anywhere.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you. Thank you for that. I’ve been speaking with Samuel Popkin, professor of Political Science at UCSD. His most recent book is "The Reasoning Voter." And I want to let everyone know that if you didn’t get a chance to get your comment on the air, please go online and post it at Stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes right here on KPBS.