Obama Draws Strategy For Remainder Of Term

Ahead of President Obama's State of the Union address tonight, Tell Me More looks ahead to the two years remaining of the president's term. The program focuses on three vital areas — the economy, U.S. education and America's relationship with its Muslim population. Joining the discussion are Ken Blackwell, the former Ohio Secretary of State and current board member of the fiscally-conservative group Club for Growth; Steve Perry, founder and the principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Connecticut and President of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Nihad Awad.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Former White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, has been tossed off the ballot in the race to become Chicago's next mayor. He was the front runner. So, what's next for him and the candidates who remain in the race, who include a former U.S. senator? We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, the economy, education, this nation's relationship with its Muslim citizens. We thought President Obama's second State of the Union address might be a good time to take stock of his progress on those issues and others, and to look ahead to the next two years of the Obama presidency.

Here to talk about these vital topics and whatever else is on their minds, we've got Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, known as CAIR.

Also with us, educator Steve Perry, the founder and the principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Connecticut. He's also a contributor on education matters to CNN.

And Ken Blackwell, the former secretary of state in the state of Ohio. He's a Republican. He's a board member of the fiscally conservative organization, the Club for Growth, and he's a senior fellow at the Family Research Council. I welcome you all and thank you all so much for joining us.

NIHAD AWAD: Thank you.

STEVE PERRY: It's good to be with you.

KEN BLACKWELL: Thank you.

MARTIN: So, Ken Blackwell, let me start with you. I want to ask each of you the question that pollsters so often ask citizens at key points, you know, when we're evaluating sort of where we are as a country. So, Ken Blackwell, I'm going to start with you and I'm going to ask each of you this, are we on the right track as a country, on the wrong track?

BLACKWELL: Well, I think we're on the wrong track looking for the right track when it comes to accelerating economic growth and creating jobs. You know, at the beginning of the Obama administration, the president embraced a notion that we were a welfare state that needed to expand.

I think after last November's elections, he is recalibrating and starting to understand that capital seeks the path of least resistance and greatest opportunity. And right now we're not that path. So, I'm hopeful that the president will put us back on the right track economically, so that we can expand the economy and put Americans back to work again.

MARTIN: I'm going to come back to you on the economy particularly, Mr. Blackwell, because Ohio, of course, is one of the states that's been like many, struggling with job creation and, you know, and unemployment. So, we'll talk more about that in a few minutes. But I want to hear from all of our guests.

Nihad, right track or wrong track when you think about where we are as a country overall at this point in our history?

AWAD: I happen to believe that we are on the right track because everyone is trying to do his best to fix the economy, to create jobs, to stop the unemployment rate from going up. You know, definitely President Obama has inherited a huge economic meltdown and he had to do something. And, you know, with the help of a serious stimulus package, definitely many jobs were saved. And therefore, the economy, I believe, is recovering.

And both Democrats and Republicans have to work sincerely hard, together to recover and focusing on creating more jobs. Definitely we did not eliminate the fact that we have, you know, almost 9 million people without jobs. But we need to work harder to create more jobs, to focus on research, economic opportunities for those who have, you know, been losing it every day.

So, I happen to believe that, you know, we are heading on the right track. Although, there is always opposition and people are not happy, they'll try just to undermine whoever is in charge. But I think we have to pull together and just make it happen for the American people.

MARTIN: Steve Perry, what about you?

PERRY: We are headed towards the right track in education. I don't know that we've yet gotten on the right track. It's interesting. The intersection of the recession and technology has presented America's educators and children in particular with access to untold information, as well as it's shown the community that public education is for too long been bloated and lazy. So, now, accountability has become a word that is often used.

The challenges that lie before us are the gatekeepers and organized labor, have sought to maintain the status quo, that being to keep a school defined by that which happens within the building. When we know that there are opportunities online and schools such as University of Phoenix posts anywhere from 150 to 200,000 students. Schools like Ashford University, also an online college, 65,000 students.

And then we start to look at high school programs, at schools such as, excuse me, Johns Hopkins University posts 10,000 students participating in a gifted and talented program for 90 different countries. The intersection of recession and technology have really presented some opportunities for us to look at what could happen in education. Not just in the poor, largely minority school districts, but in those school districts that are suburban and they have one high school and they can't offer a calculus 2 because they can't hire a full- time calculus 2 teacher, according to the pay scale. But they could allow students to take an online calculus 2 course.

MARTIN: I want to talk a little bit more about that. We're looking back at the Obama presidency to date. We're looking ahead at his next two years. We're taking stock on the day that the State of the Union is delivered and we're visiting with three thought leaders. You just heard education leader Steve Perry. He's the founder and the CEO of a highly regarded public school, magnet school in Hartford, Connecticut.

Also with us, Nihad Awad, the executive director of CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations. And Ken Blackwell, he's the former Ohio secretary of State and he's also on the board of two important organizations, the Club for Growth and the Family Research Council.

MARTIN: So, Steve Perry, you know, one of the things I wanted to talk about next is, where do you see - there's been so much conversation around, you know, divided government and what that will mean and hyperpartisan, what some people consider a hyperpartisan atmosphere. I'm interested to hear from each of you whether you think that despite, you know, the rhetoric, there are areas in which there is significant agreement already.

And I'll start with you, Steve Perry, because we had secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, on the program earlier this month. And I asked him this question. This is what he had to say.

ARNE DUNCAN: All of us, regardless of politics or ideology, I think, share the same sense of urgency that I feel, that we have to educate our way to a better economy. This, I believe, is the civil rights issue of our generation. The dividing line in my mind today is much less around race and class than it is around educational opportunity.

It's also a national security issue. So, whichever lens you look at it, you know, as a civil rights issue, as one of an economic imperative or one of national security, we have to drive a huge amount of change and reform and help lead the country where we need to go. And we cannot to afford to wait.

MARTIN: Steve Perry, do you think that's true? You think there is that level of agreement.

PERRY: I know it's true.

MARTIN: You think there is that level of agreement around this?

PERRY: I know it's true. Films like "Waiting for Superman" were not just sold to people of color or to Democrats or to Republicans. But, in fact, people all over the country felt the impact of that conversation that began this summer.

In addition to that, I have had the opportunity to travel to about 45 states in the past two, three years. And have spoken at colleges, historically black and mainstream, if that's the distinction, as well as community organizations. And I have yet to find a group of people who likes the status quo. I have yet to find a group of Republicans or Dems who feel like, this is good. Things are good in education.

I feel like the overwhelming majority of Americans have had enough and they're looking for answers. They're tired of being told that children are born to the wrong parents, they're born into the wrong communities. They're born to the wrong race or born with not enough money. And that therefore becomes where they end in life.

People have seen too many examples of largely successful schools in some of the poorest zip codes. Likewise, our suburban students are getting spanked internationally and they've had enough. We pay too much in America for education, way too much. In some cities and towns, as much as 85 percent of every dollar, every tax dollar, local property tax dollar goes to the locally funded schools.

MARTIN: So we should be getting better results, right, for that?

PERRY: We want results that seem like we're spending that much of our money on it.

MARTIN: Ken Blackwell, what about you on the economy? This is one of the areas during the campaign that just ended the midterm elections, where there just seemed to be really significant philosophical disagreement about the way forward. What do you think - are there areas of agreement that perhaps are not as obvious in the headlines?

BLACKWELL: Well, it's going to be interesting to watch because the taxpayers and voters spoke loudly and clearly in the last election. And I think the president is showing some signs of having heard the people's voice in his latest round of personnel changes. But, you know, this spring, the debate around raising the debt ceiling will tell us enough as to - and a lot about whether or not both the Congress and the president get the joke.

We cannot continue to feed the beast. We're going to have to make some drastic cuts in our domestic spending and that means that we're going to have to revisit the laundry list put forth by the bipartisan deficit reduction commission.

MARTIN: But what about that, though, Ken Blackwell? I mean, the fact is that the agreement that was reached in the lame-duck session, both parties participated in that. They both participated in cutting taxes for everybody across the board. And so is that where the dividing line is now, sort of going forward? Is it cutting taxes or cutting domestic spending? Or do you think that there is...

BLACKWELL: Well, I think the dividing line is going to be the spending issue. And I think, again, the debate on the debt ceiling will be telling. I don't happen to believe that we need to raise the debt ceiling for a two-year period. I think we should perhaps raise the debt ceiling for six months and then see if there are corresponding cuts in spending before we raise it again.

Look, we have a serious debt problem. It is a national security problem, because China and other foreign interests are holding the majority of our debt. It is a moral issue because we are talking about intergenerational theft. And it quite naturally is an economic issue because government is too big. It is sucking up capital and it is slowing our recovery, and particularly it is working counterproductively against job creation.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break, but when we come back we're going to continue this conversation with a look at President Obama's term at the midway point.

Nihad Awad, I've not forgotten about you. Nihad Awad is the executive director on the Council of American-Islamic Relations. Also with us, former Ohio secretary of state, Ken Blackwell, and education pioneer, Steve Perry.

On the other side of the break, one of the things I want to talk about is this whole question of civility in politics and what President Obama's goals should be for the remainder of his term. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes. Please stay with us.

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, after taking a break in the wake of that tragic shooting in Tucson, Congress is getting down to serious work. There's an oversight hearing tomorrow to look into how the bank bailout is working and whether foreclosure relief is having any effect. Some experts say that a looming foreclosure crisis is in the offing - getting even worse. We'll talk about that in just a few minutes.

But first, we're continuing our conversation with a diverse panel of thinkers looking now beyond the president's State of the Union speech and toward the next two years of his presidency.

Our guests today are Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR. Steve Perry, the founder and principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School in the Hartford, Connecticut public school system. He's also an education contributor for CNN. Also with us, Ken Blackwell, the one-time Ohio secretary of state, now a board member with the fiscally conservative Club for Growth and a senior fellow for family empowerment at the Family Research Council. That's a socially conservative organization.

And, Nihad, I wanted to talk about this whole question of civility and whether there's a need for sort of more civility in our public discourse. New York Congressman Peter King, the new chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, has called for hearings on what he calls the radicalization of the Muslim community. I just want to play a short clip. Here it is.

PETER KING: I believe it's important to have this investigation on radicalization of the Muslim community. We've seen what happened in England. We know that al-Qaida is trying to recruit people over here, such as they did with the subway bombing in New York last year, the attempted subway bombing, Times Square bombing. These are all people living legally in the United States.

MARTIN: Now, we know that Congressman King is planning hearings next month on this question. There are a lot of American Muslim leaders like yourself who consider this an example of kind of the instability of public discourse. On the other hand, there are people on Mr. King's side who said this is a serious issue and if you as a public official feel that there's a serious issue, you have a responsibility to address it. So, how do you think it is - what is an appropriate way to mediate these very different perspectives?

AWAD: Well, every once in awhile we need to be reminded to be civil and to have serious discussions, but frank discussions, without abandoning civility because what we say affects people's lives and the way we are perceived. And especially leaders, elected officials always set the tone not only for themselves and those who hear them, but for the whole nation. And in that case, you know, as an example, in the whole world.

So, for Representative Peter King, I think the best way was displayed - was yesterday. Front page story in The Washington Post. The take away from that story is Representative Peter King had a dispute with some leaders in the local mosque in Long Island and he's turning it into a personal vendetta against Muslims nationwide.

I think the issue of radicalization is important to all Americans. But we have to approach this issue in a comprehensive and responsible way. I, as a citizen of the United States, would like to know what motivated Timothy McVey to kill so many people in Oklahoma in 1995. I as a citizen would like to see what motivated a man to fly his plane into the IRS building in Texas. I, as a citizen of this country, I would like to know what motivates Mr. Loughner who shot so many people just a few days ago in Tucson, Arizona.

As a citizen, I would like to know what motivated a young man, college student, to shoot so many people at Virginia Tech. And, also, I as a citizen of this country, I would like to know what motivates some young Muslims to go and wanting to fight, you know, abroad. All these things are important. But to single out the Muslim community for investigation, I believe it's not only unfair, it's un-American, but also it's irresponsible.

MARTIN: Well, but all those matters that you spoke about were investigated at some level and, as we know, Timothy McVey was executed for his crimes. And so are you saying that there should not be a public inquiry. That it should take place in a different way? I mean, what are saying, when there are very different views about something that is a significance to society?

AWAD: My contention with that is that we need to approach all these matters and look deeper into them and not single out the community that these criminals happen to be coming from that community. Religious profiling, ethnic profiling has never worked in America. And if we learned anything from history, why should we repeat it? Just for political gain?

MARTIN: Mr. Blackwell, what do you think about this? I mean, what is your take on this? You're also in, I think, on our group tier today, you're the most experienced elected leader. Do you feel that there is a need for more civility in public discourse? How would you approach something like we've been talking about here? Where there are very different points of view about the way forward, which some people experience even the conversation itself as assault.

BLACKWELL: I put it in context of our 234-year history. In that 234-year history, we are the most diverse and the most prosperous democracy in all of human history. But I'm mindful of something that the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel used to say. And that is that respect, discover the dignity in others.

And so I think as we've had these very important debates about internal national security and global movements that are determined to keep upheaval on our country and other democracies is an investigation that needs to be conducted. But it needs to be conducted in a way that is levelheaded and thorough.

And so, if we keep in mind that we have been a beacon of civility and growth and opportunity, and that's why so many people long to come here, I think we can get this job done. I don't think we can turn a blind eye to global movements that are determined to change life as we have come to understand it and desire in this country.

MARTIN: Steve Perry, I'm going to give you the last word as the educator here because presumably discourse is one of the things you're teaching your students. And so I want to ask you just from where you sit, do you think we need more civility in public discourse. And if so, how would you go about promoting it or ensuring it?

PERRY: We absolutely do. The grown people need to chill out because the kids are watching. The way in which we are communicating with one another, spewing venom at one another, makes its way down to what our children see. And they don't understand why people are so angry. They don't know the back story. Tell them the story and engage them in such a way in which they feel like they could be part of the discussion.

Our school's theme is social justice. And I had just a week ago a young lady who was Muslim, have someone put whether they were joking or otherwise, a three by five card in her locker and it said terrorist. Adults. The kids didn't make this stuff up. You really have to pay attention to what you're doing. My children see you. I don't care where you are in this country. They have television and they have the Internet. They see what you're doing to each other and they see how you're treating each other.

Little girls, 13 years old, she's going to live with that forever. She's a great student. She's never done anything to anybody. We need to have a better understanding of how to communicate with one another because our children are in it now. It's not just about being the future, they're what we need to depend on now. And if we don't find a way to be more civil towards one another, we're going to extend the hate into another generation. And we've done hate pretty well. Let's try something else.

MARTIN: Ken Blackwell, final thought from you. We have about a minute left. Members of Congress of different parties are saying they're going to sit next to each other intentionally at the State of the Union address. Do you think that's a good idea?

BLACKWELL: Symbolically, it's a good idea. But the proof is in the pudding. We'll see how they collaborate to get our economy revved up again, producing jobs and putting Americans who want to work back to work.

MARTIN: Ken Blackwell was Ohio's secretary of state. He served from 1999 to 2007. He's with the Club for Growth and the Family Research Council here in Washington, D.C. He was kind enough to join us from his offices there. We hope next time he'll come by our studios, he'll see us. So we can greet him in person.

BLACKWELL: I look forward to it.

MARTIN: Nihad Awad is the executive director on the Council of American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR. He was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

And Steve Perry, the founder and school principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Connecticut. It's a part of the public school system. He's also an education contributor to CNN. He was with us from member station WNPR in Hartford, Connecticut. I thank you all so much for speaking with us, gentlemen.

PERRY: Thank you.

BLACKWELL: Good to be with you.

AWAD: Thank you.

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