Looking Back At The 2011 State Of The Union

Robert Siegel talks to NPR's Scott Horsley about the key points and policies President Obama highlighted a year ago in his appearance before Congress for the State of the Union.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Today, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney spoke about the president's upcoming State of the Union Address. He said if you get everything done that you propose in that speech, you're not setting goals high enough.

Well, on the eve of this year's address, we're joined by NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley to talk about what was on President Obama's mind last year when he spoke to the Congress.

Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Robert.

SIEGEL: In his State of the Union Address last year, Mr. Obama early on highlighted that many jobs have been siphoned off to China and other countries.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country or somewhere else.

SIEGEL: That was the theme a year ago. What's happened since then, Scott?

HORSLEY: Well, the president and the Congress spent a lot of the last year talking about the budget deficit. And it was really only in September that President Obama came out with a jobs plan, almost none of which has been enacted. He's been somewhat fortunate in recent months, though. Job growth has ticked up and the unemployment rate has dipped to a still high, but not as high, eight and a half percent.

SIEGEL: Now, last year, the president didn't just talk about creating new jobs but of creating new industries, especially in alternative energy development, for example, solar and wind. He framed it this way.

OBAMA: This is our generation's Sputnik moment.

HORSLEY: Yeah, green energy has been a priority for this president from the get-go. One thing that that happened this last year that hasn't gotten a lot of attention was he struck a deal with the automakers to dramatically boost fuel economy standards. And just today, the Energy Department came out with its forecasts showing a decline in demand for imported oil. So that's been a positive. Of course, there was also the black eye of the Solyndra bankruptcy.

SIEGEL: Then there was immigration.

OBAMA: I strongly believe that we should take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration.

HORSLEY: Well, that's one of those areas where there's been zero progress at the congressional level over the last year, although the administration has taken steps administratively to use a little more discretion in who they're deporting.

SIEGEL: Here's an issue that we've heard a lot about since when the president, in last year's State of the Union, addressed our tax code.

OBAMA: So tonight, I'm asking Democrats and Republicans to simplify the system. Get rid of the loopholes. Level the playing field.

HORSLEY: I'm afraid when you do your taxes this year, it's going to be just as complex as it was a year ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HORSLEY: That's an area that they talked about as part of that grand bargain, but it didn't come to pass, and so it's an area of the president can highlight again in this year's speech.

SIEGEL: And also, in January of last year, the president set out a spending plan, or at least very broadly, speaking one.

OBAMA: I am proposing that starting this year, we freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years.

HORSLEY: Yeah. Ultimately, the president wound up having to make larger cuts to domestic spending than he wanted, though not so large as congressional Republicans wanted as part of their deal to raise the debt ceiling and get a handle on the federal budget.

SIEGEL: And here's something that President Obama said in his State of the Union last year. He talked about streamlining the federal government. He cited examples of waste and of overlapping authority.

OBAMA: There are 12 different agencies that deal with exports. There are at least five different agencies that deal with housing policies. Then there's my favorite example: the Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in freshwater, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in salt water.

HORSLEY: So just 10 days ago, Robert, the administration did come back with its first proposal to do some of that streamlining. The president wants to merge the Commerce Department and the U.S. trade representative and several other frayed agencies into one big, new cabinet department that would be focused on trade and business. That still needs congressional approval, though.

SIEGEL: And finally, Scott, a nonstarter: healthcare. Last year at this time, the president said this to members of Congress who found fault with the healthcare law that he had championed.

OBAMA: So let me be the first to say that anything can be improved. If you have ideas about how to improve this law by making care better, or more affordable, I am eager to work with you.

HORSLEY: Well, they did make one change to the healthcare law. They took away paperwork requirement that a lot of small businesses felt was very burdensome. But the fight over health care is far from over. It's now moved over to the Supreme Court.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Scott.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Scott Horsley at the White House. He was reviewing last year's promises and proposals in the State of the Union Address. This year's address is scheduled for tomorrow night.

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