Obama Addresses American Legion

President Obama traveled to Minneapolis Tuesday and addressed the annual national conference of the American Legion. Robert Siegel talks to NPR's Mara Liasson for more.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: And I'm Robert Siegel. President Obama focused on veterans today at a speech to the American Legion in Minneapolis, and he connected their circumstances to the economy, with promises to help unemployed veterans find work.

President BARACK OBAMA: As a nation, we're facing some tough choices as we put our fiscal house in order, but I want to be absolutely clear. We cannot, we must not, we will not balance the budget on the backs of our veterans.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: As commander in chief, I won't allow it.

SIEGEL: Mr. Obama's speech also laid the groundwork for the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks; and his speech next week on jobs and the deficit. NPR's Mara Liasson was at the speech in Minneapolis today and she joins us now. Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: And first, a lot of themes there. And with the exception of brief statements on Hurricane Irene, this is really the president's first public appearance since his return from vacation. What was his agenda today?

LIASSON: Well, his main agenda really was to set the stage for the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It is standard practice for a president to make an annual visit to one of the major veterans groups, and that's certainly what he was doing today. But he also talked about what he called the 9/11 generation, the more than five million Americans who've worn the uniform over the past 10 years. They've served in unprecedented deployments. He said never before has our nation asked so much of our all-volunteer force, and he said that they have changed the way America fights and wins its wars. So he was there to praise them but also to set the stage for what's going to happen next weekend.

SIEGEL: Yes. 9/11 is less than two weeks away, and the White House appears to have put a lot of effort into striking the tone that it wants for that anniversary. What can you tell us about that?

LIASSON: That's right. They've laid some plans. They want these commemorations to be relatively low-key. The president will go to all three sites: New York, Pennsylvania and Washington. And as often happens before a major event like this, the administration has put out talking points to agencies to talk about how it want - what message it wants to communicate in these talking points. It says they want to present a positive forward-looking narrative about the attacks.

They also want to make sure that the events don't make it seem like these attacks were just about the U.S. because many people around the world have been killed by terrorists. They also want to emphasize resilience in recovering from the loss, and also, they want to minimize references to al-Qaida. Since Osama bin Laden has been killed, they believe that al-Qaida is becoming increasingly irrelevant. They want to make the contrast between al-Qaida representing the past and the Arab Spring representing the future.

SIEGEL: How much do these concerns matter to Americans now compared to economic concerns? It's seemed to overshadow terrorism.

LIASSON: Well, there's no doubt that economic concerns are the number one concerns of Americans, but the 9/11 attacks were extremely important. And because the economy is so important, the president used his speech today to talk about what he wanted to do for veterans not just protecting veterans' benefits in that clip that you played earlier but also talking about what he's going to do to help veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan find private-sector jobs.

He talked about a returning hero's tax credit for companies that hire unemployed veterans, a wounded warrior's tax credit for companies that hire unemployed veterans who have a disability. So he is firmly focused on the economy, and, of course, he is giving that big speech next week.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Next week, after Labor Day, we expect his big jobs speech to be made. Do we know what the centerpiece of that speech will be?

LIASSON: Well, up until now, the discussion in Washington about the economy has really been about the deficit. This has been the Republicans' agenda. Now, he's going to be talking about what he can do immediately, what Congress can do immediately, as he puts it, to put more money in the pockets of working families, how to make it easier for small businesses to hire people. That means a lot more tax credits for hiring and creating jobs. He wants, he says, to put construction crews to work rebuilding our nation's roads and railways; that probably will be some infrastructure programs. He's going to have to lay out this agenda. He says these are bipartisan ideas that ought to be the kind of thing that everyone can vote for, but even if Republicans reject them, he is going to have to lay out this agenda and campaign for it.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Mara Liasson.

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