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Obama's State Of The Union Comes Amid Trying Times


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Im Madeleine Brand in California.


And Im Robert Siegel in Washington.

President Barack Obama heads up to Capitol Hill tonight to deliver his first State of the Union address. With unemployment at 10 percent and health care at a stalemate, the White House is on the defensive. But we expect the president to say that he'll still push for that major legislative initiative of his and that he'll propose programs to create new jobs as well.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins me now. Hi, Mara.


SIEGEL: And we should say at the outset that we were both at the White House today getting a sense of the presidents thinking. How would you describe what he has to do today?

LIASSON: Well, he has to do a lot. He has to reconnect with the middle class, convince them he has a plan to create jobs and turn the economy around, somehow acknowledge what happened in Massachusetts without abandoning his agenda and angering his own base. And while he's at it, he has to explain how he plans to control the deficit. Its a very, very tall order. Its kind of a daunting political task tonight. And I actually cant think of a president whos given a State of the Union facing a more difficult political landscape.

SIEGEL: On health care, I havent heard the idea that thats it, its over. We're finished with health care. They want at least give it one more go.

LIASSON: I think the way he's going to treat health care, they dont really know what to do on health care. The Democrats in the White House are still trying to figure it out. I think the idea is that he will say that everybody is taking a deep breath, stepping back. That certainly is the message from Capitol Hill. They are still assessing whats doable, whats passable. I mean, push it through on reconciliation, there are a lot of Democrats, moderate ones, in the Senate who are absolutely opposed to that.

SIEGEL: Yeah, that would be without getting 60 votes.

LIASSON: Right. Do something more minimal, a package of the quote, "just be popular parts." Of course its unclear if the popular parts hang together without a lot of other infrastructure and whether Republicans would vote for anything.

SIEGEL: Yeah. The Republicans now have 41 votes. President Obama is clearly frustrated by whats happened in the Senate where every item nowadays needs 60 votes to end debate and therefore pass. How does he address Republicans in that situation?

LIASSON: The White House is intent on making the Republicans, now that they have 41 votes, accountable. They're even being referred to up there as the governing party. I mean, that they have a responsibility for governing because they have the veto.

SIEGEL: So they can prevent anything from happening.

LIASSON: Yes, they can prevent anything from happening. And I think the White House is very frustrated. The public hasnt seemed to have held the Republicans accountable even as they have blocked, up until now, so many of the presidents initiatives. I think that the president is going to both reach out to them because he knows that his brand and something that the public likes is bipartisanship, an effort to meet in the center, but he's also going to challenge them.

SIEGEL: In fact, he's going to say, when you Republicans had only 40 seats in the Senate, okay, you could it was our fault that we couldnt get things done with 41, no more Mr. Nice Guy.

LIASSON: I think there's going to be some version of that.

SIEGEL: You said there is no prior experience you can think back to. And you watched more than one president in the White House. No prior experience that Mr. Obama may draw upon?

LIASSON: Well, here's the problem with that. I've been wracking my brains on the prior experiences. And, of course, I thought about Bill Clinton, who lost both houses of Congress and came back with a very powerful State of the Union address in 1995 that set him up nicely to win reelection. He triangulated. And he said we can work together or you can send me a bunch of bills and then we'll rack up a pile of vetoes.

He showed some strength. He pushed back against them. But he did triangulate. But he had someone to triangulate with. The president still has his own party very much in control of both houses of Congress. Ronald Reagan, I think is the model that the White House would look to more. He stayed the course wasnt necessarily defiant, but he stayed the course, took a big hit in the midterms, came back and got reelected.

SIEGEL: People at the White House like to say that when he was at 42 percent, he was a dithering old man in the eyes of the media. When he got reelected in 1984, he was the great communicator.

LIASSON: Something like that they hope will happen to President Obama.

SIEGEL: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Morning EditionAll Things Considered
Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.