Looking Ahead To The Challenges Of The Next Term

Guests

Ron Elving, senior Washington editor, NPR
Linda Wertheimer, senior national correspondent, NPR
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, foreign correspondent, NPR
Tom Bowman, correspondent, NPR
Ted Robbins, correspondent, NPR
Kelly McEvers, foreign correspondent, NPR
Marilyn Geewax, senior business editor, NPR

President Barack Obama faces a number of pressing domestic and foreign policy issues as he begins his second term. A sluggish economy at home, regional conflicts and threats of terrorism abroad and a political stalemate in Washington all pose unique challenges for the president.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is special coverage from NPR News of the presidential inauguration. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The crowds along the National Mall have dwindled, and President Obama is making his way to the inaugural parade, which then will head down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. The theme of this year's inauguration, faith in America's future, an idea that echoed through much of what the president said in an inaugural address that illuminated many of the principles behind the policies he intends to address during his final term.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.

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OBAMA: Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.

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OBAMA: For if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.

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OBAMA: Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.

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OBAMA: Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity, until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.

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OBAMA: Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.

CONAN: The president appealed to Americans regardless of party labels, spoke passionately in support of Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and against what he called the threat of climate change and its, quote, devastating events.

OBAMA: We must act; we must act knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act knowing that today's victories will be only partial and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.

CONAN: Citing a decade of wars coming to an end, the president alluded to a - said that a long-term safety does not require perpetual warfare, and in a sharp contrast to the suffering economy from four years ago, he spoke of an America poised to fulfill the promise of our Founding Fathers.

OBAMA: You and I as citizens have the power to set this country's course. You and I as citizens have the obligation to shape the debates of our time not only with the votes we cast but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.

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OBAMA: Let each of us now embrace, with solemn duty and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright. With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom. Thank you, God bless you, and may He forever bless these United States of America.

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CONAN: We'll spend this hour discussing changes between today and four years ago and look ahead to some of the key policy issues that face the Obama administration, All issues that have changed over these past four years. And we'd like to hear from you about that. What's the biggest change in your life, in your town, from four years ago? 800-989-8255 is the phone number, email us, talk@npr.org.

Joining us here in Studio 3A is Ron Elving, NPR senior Washington editor. Ron, nice to have you with us today.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And as the president, you listen to his remarks, a very different speech than the one he gave in the midst of an economic crisis four years ago.

ELVING: It was a speech that had conscious echoes, I think, of a second inaugural 150 year ago, a hundred and almost 50 years ago, in 1865 by President Abraham Lincoln. We have many anniversaries that are being marked with this particular inaugural. The 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation is coming up a little later on this year. We have the 50th anniversary, of course, of Martin Luther King's walk on the Mall and famous "I Have a Dream" speech from there, many things that the president was consciously echoing in some of his highly poetic writing today.

And I think this was a speech that bore his mark maybe more clearly than any speech he's given since that famous speech in the summer of 2004 that lifted him to those levels of - those stratospheric levels of notice in the United States that led to his nomination for president four years thereafter.

CONAN: Yes, high-flown oratory, but more tough policy statements than you would expect in an inaugural address.

ELVING: Well, for example, for example no president before has talked about gay rights in a inaugural speech, and the president was really quite foursquare today in putting the gay rights movement on the same footing with women's rights and civil rights.

CONAN: On the Martin Luther King holiday no less.

ELVING: On the holiday, on the day of Martin Luther King's celebration. This of course was - you know, there was no missing it. He talked about Seneca Falls from the women's movement. He talked about Selma, of course, from the civil rights movement, and he talked about Stonewall, which was an incident in New York City some number of years ago that many people see as the beginning of the open gay rights movement in America.

He also said - he made reference to our gay brothers and sisters and their right to love whom they wish to love. And this is unusual rhetoric in a United States presidential inaugural. I mean, maybe that's of a surprise to younger people, but this is not the sort of issue that politicians used to talk about in public and certainly not at a ceremonial occasion such as this one.

So there were moments such as that. He was also very foursquare about climate change. He also talked about immigration. He talked a little bit about the fiscal situation, and of course we're going to hear a great deal more about that three weeks from tomorrow night when the president gives the State of the Union Address.

So he did refer to substantial issues that we all know are the present issues, the things that are right in front of us for this Congress and this president, but it was not his programmatic speech. He was a little less than 20 minutes long. It was a kind of homily, if you will. It was a kind of opening remarks for his second term. And I do think that he was trying very hard to touch some of the touchstones of American rhetoric going back to Lincoln and Martin Luther King and others.

CONAN: He also made reference to Sandy Hook Elementary School and the tragedy there, as well. And again, without speaking specifically about legislation, we can expect more from that in the State of the Union message, as you say. But if the president four years ago was stating the present crisis in this speech, did we hear what a president, this president believes, what is going to be motivating his ideas and his actions as he goes forward?

ELVING: There were a couple of things. One was the repetition of the word together. He did talk a number of times about seizing the moment that the United States has reached in both a positive and of course in a troubled sense. I mean, we do have wars that we're winding down from. We still have the effects of the Great Recession, if you will. We still have a fair amount of anxiety about where the markets are going, the housing market, the stock market and things of that nature.

There are certainly a lot of things that the president has to have on his mind with respect to those crises...

CONAN: And he's probably calling you about them right now.

ELVING: So it would appear. But the together word came up again and again as he tried to emphasize unity, he tried to make this a theme of his second term even though we all know that that is of course addressing a situation that is, well, quite the contrary, that there is a tremendous amount of dissent within the Congress, dissent from his programs and also of course division within the Congress itself.

CONAN: Yet he tried to put it on the we the people level on a day when of course we celebrate constitutional continuity, where he swears to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, as he said, not any particular political party. But on that day, he also called on citizens to sort of appeal over the political parties and get their representatives to move along.

ELVING: That's right, and I thought another point that he made in this unity theme and in this move along theme, as you call it, was that we don't need to settle the question of ultimately what is the proper role of the government in the life of our nation once and for all right now. That does not have to be the result of the next three weeks of debate. That does not have to be resolved by the 113th Congress.

More important than resolving that principle, more important than resolving that long-term American struggle, and it is long-term, been with us for 200-and-some years and probably will be if we survive for another couple of hundred, more important is to get some things done in the short run to make the economy better and to address some of these other questions that he brought up.

CONAN: More about that a little bit later in the program, but we want to hear from listeners, as well. What's changed for you since four years ago when we were hemorrhaging, what, 600,000 jobs per month in the middle of that terrible Great Recession, and now we're in sort of this sluggish recovery, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. We'll start with Tony(ph), Tony with us from Prescott, Arizona.

TONY: Hi Neal, how are you doing?

CONAN: Good, thanks, go ahead.

TONY: Thanks for putting me on. well, I can tell you from experience of his last term, I lost my job, I lost my house, pretty much lost everything. I like what I hear him saying, but to me it sounds like rhetoric because he can't seem to get Congress to work together, and to me they're all working for their own, you know, little positions.

Now I will admit that I have a daughter who's gay, and the remarks about gay rights make me feel very good because she deserves the right to marry, you know, the woman that she loves. But I just, I don't feel confident that he's going to be able to get the things done that he says he's going to get done.

CONAN: Arizona of course was one of the epicenters of the housing bubble, which collapsed. Do you see any signs of recovery at all?

TONY: Absolutely not. I can drive down through any neighborhood in this town and see houses that are only half-built. Everybody just cut and ran.

CONAN: And despite the statistics that show things are beginning to recover a bit.

TONY: Yeah, well, statistics are statistics. But I can tell you right now where even - my mother lives in one of the most expensive, you know, housing developments in this town, and right next door is a house that's still only halfway done.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Tony, and we wish you better luck.

TONY: All right, well, thank you very much for having me.

CONAN: Our coverage of President Obama's second inauguration continues this hour. We'll check back on the inaugural parade in a few minutes and focus on some of the immediate challenges facing the president in his next and final term. Call and tell us what's been the biggest change in your life from four years ago, 800-989-8255. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's special coverage from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is special coverage from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. President Obama officially took the oath of office yesterday, as the Constitution requires, in a small ceremony at the White House. Today he repeated the oath on a cold but mostly sunny day here in Washington, D.C., the crowds smaller this time around and the speech a bit shorter.

On the day we observe the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., the president put his hand on a Bible once used by the civil rights icon. As the president and vice president made their way out of a congressional luncheon today at the U.S. Capitol, they paused in front of a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. then slowly walked through the Capitol Rotunda on their way to the inaugural parade.

That parade, as so often the case, is starting a bit later than scheduled. NPR senior national correspondent Linda Wertheimer joins us now from along the parade route. Linda, what's going on?

LINDA WERTHEIMER, BYLINE: Well, we are sitting in the Canadian Embassy steps, that is just, well, right at the beginning of the parade route. So we'll be the first to see them. We've seen the security sweeps. We've seen some of the police cars and Secret Service cars, and the president is moving.

So he will lead the parade. We will see the presidential limousines come in first before the rest of the parade, but there was a little bit of time spent standing on the steps of the Capitol while the military units, which will march in the parade, passed in review with the color guard, including the ones that are attached to some of the Washington bases that wear the Revolutionary War costumes.

So we'll see them, we'll see lots of military units, and in the first part of the parade we'll see things related to President Obama, like the Kamehameha High School Warrior Marching Band. And we're seeing - we'll see some marching unit - a marching unit from Punahou, I may be pronouncing this wrong, Punahou High School, which is where President Obama went to high school and the JROTC color guard from that same school. And they will lead the Hawaii home state float, which is one of the floats in the parade devoted to the first family.

Then we will see the Hawaii, the Isiserettes - another difficult thing to pronounce - Drill and Drum Corps from Iowa. So we're seeing a little bit of emphasis placed on battleground states, as well as the president, the vice president and their families.

Now I think we're getting into the area. I hesitate to say that.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Because we've been sitting here for quite some time waiting for this parade to begin.

CONAN: And are people in the crowd getting a little chilly?

WERTHEIMER: Well, people in the - no because it's sunny, and one of the great things is that, you know, whenever there are many, many, many people gathered together, it's quite a bit warmer than it would be if there were not people. So I think a lot of the people who are watching the parade are probably fine. We happen to be surrounded by great groups of Canadians. So they're keeping us warm.

It's really a beautiful day now. The sky is clear, the sun is out. It's everything you would want the parade to be if it has to be on a winter day.

CONAN: And it, according to the Constitution, it does have to be on a winter's day.

WERTHEIMER: Well, you know, back in the day, the parades, the inaugurations were in March, partly I think because it took such a long time to get all the way from one coast to the other with the information about who had won and what was involved. But now - I mean, that was stopped because of the difficulty in having two presidents for several months. And then we began doing this big inaugural ceremony in January, which makes much more sense in terms of politics and policy, although in terms of weather it's not all that it might be.

CONAN: Linda, we'll check back with you once things get started.

WERTHEIMER: Well, things are just about to get started, so I'll talk to you soon.

CONAN: NPR's Linda Wertheimer on the steps of the Canadian Embassy right along the parade route. We also want to hear from you. What's changed in the past four years? This from Casey(ph) in Fort Collins, Colorado: Four years later, I have graduated from college and grad school and have been working a string of unfulfilling jobs for which I am overqualified and underpaid. Unfortunately, too much debt and lack of funding in my field of science research has made things difficult. I'd like to see the president address issues in science and technology research funding.

Joining us now, some of the first crises of the president's second term are playing out in Syria, in Algeria and right now in Mali. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an NPR foreign correspondent and joins us now by Skype from Bamako, the capital of Mali. Ofeibea, good to have you with us.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings.

CONAN: And can you give us an update? French forces, of course, intervened in Mali there, what, several days ago now. What's been happening?

QUIST-ARCTON: Today it looks as if the Malian troops - well, I say it looks as if, we're being told by the French and the Malians that they have retaken two key towns that the Islamists have occupied, one four months ago, that was Douentza, and also the town of Diabaly, a smallish town but which the militants overran last week and held, apparently moving into the homes of residents, and they were heavily armed.

They fled at the weekend, and that's probably due to French military, French air power and air strikes. But this is only the initial start of trying to either defeat or push back the rebels.

CONAN: And if they're going to push them back to the places in the north from whence they came, it will be a long-running process.

QUIST-ARCTON: Oh, it looks as if it's going to be just that way, Neal. And let me just add we've been told by AFRICOM, the U.S. military command, that today it began flying French troops into Mali as requested by France. So the U.S. has been mulling what contribution it would make because of course the idea was that it was going to be an African force that would take on the Islamists, the jihadis.

But because they pushed down south from their strongholds in the north, France as the former colonial power, a friend of Mali, at the request of Mali's president, said it had to step in, otherwise terrorists would not only have threatened the stability and security of Mali, West Africa and the Sahel but the whole world because they are literally at the doorstep of Europe.

CONAN: We also hear from the British Prime Minister David Cameron today that they would be offering additional aircraft as well, logistical support for French efforts there in Mali. But even as we focus on the fighting there, and of course the situation in Algeria to the north, as well, and the dreadful details that emerged from their hostage crisis there, we can't forget that there is an entire continent of Africa.

And in your reporting, you've made clear the challenges and opportunities that, well, so many people in that continent face.

QUIST-ARCTON: Indeed, and Africans are looking to President Barack Obama in his second term, of course his legacy term, to perhaps spend a little more time in Africa south of the Sahara. He went to Ghana right at the beginning, shortly after he was sworn in in 2009, and people are saying, well, that's the only visit he has made to sub-Saharan Africa. How come we are off his radar?

So many Africans are saying they want to see more involvement by President Obama personally in Africa. They say George Bush seemed to do more for Africa than the president who has African roots. But apart from of course the issue of Islamism and terrorism, in inverted commas, what we're seeing here in Mali, as you've mentioned, what we witnessed during the hostage drama across the border, and of course the Islamists are saying that they will continue strikes against the West if the West continues to, as they put it, attack their rebel fighters here, Islamist brothers here.

People there want other things to be a focus of the U.S. apart from just oil and terrorism. They want to see the U.S. doing a little more to not combat China but compete with China in Africa. You get many specialists and analysts who are saying whilst China is seizing opportunities in Africa, you have the U.S., which seems to be pulling back from Africa, whereas the opportunities will be there for the U.S., too.

So think that's what a lot of ordinary Africans, a lot of African business executives and others are saying: Come on, show us that you're interested in this continent. We're interested in you. We're interested in what you have to bring and what we have to give to you, but let's have a little more give and take and not just talk of oil and terrorism.

CONAN: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton in Bamako in Mali. Thank you very much for your time.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Matthew(ph), Matthew with us from Fort Gordon in Georgia.

MATTHEW: Oh, hey. My wife and I are both Army officers, and we have yet to take command, but we have been to Afghanistan these last four years. And the biggest change is, of course, with the speedup and everyone's emphasis on getting everyone out of Afghanistan, it's much less likely - a bit of a relief for us to feel pretty confident that we personally are not going to have to go over there and take soldiers and potentially have to, you know, write letters home to families of soldiers lost.

So it's - just being able to get over that decade of war the president was talking about his career and personal impact on us, and I don't believe that Obama, President Obama, is going to - you know, he's not quick to push us into another combat theater, you know, in the coming four years - if it can be avoided.

CONAN: And given the prospects of a diminished military budget, how are you and the people you speak with and your - in your unit taking that?

MATTHEW: Right. We're doing pretty OK. You know, the Army is being very proactive. My branch, my wife's branch - and I assume all the branches - are taking a look at reducing numbers, reducing expenditures so that should we encounter sequestration situation, you know, we're ready. So they've done a good job of communicating it down even to my level, a junior officer level, that, you know, our leadership is being proactive and that it's not something that good officers and good soldiers need to particularly worry about.

CONAN: Well, Matthew, thanks very much for the phone call.

MATTHEW: All right. Hey, thank you.

CONAN: So long. Joining us now is NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. He's from his home in Virginia. Tom, good to have you with us.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hello, Neal.

CONAN: And it's interesting. That caller illustrated the point that President Obama emphasized in his address today, winding down a decade of wars and what he spoke of as, well, our long-term security does not require unending warfare.

BOWMAN: That's right. And, of course, President Obama just hosted Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the White House, and the issue is the drawdown in Afghanistan this year and next. How quickly will that happen? There are currently roughly 65,000 American troops in Afghanistan. And the other issue is how many troops will be there after the combat mission ends in 2014? The numbers range from 3,000 up to 15,000.

So even though the combat mission will end at the end of 2014, there's no sense that the mission itself will end all that quickly. It's a counterterrorism mission as well as a training mission in Afghanistan.

CONAN: And it was interesting also to hear the junior officer there we were just speaking with, the sense that the president does not have any interest in pushing quickly to get United States involved in new wars. Obviously, there's fighting in Syria, obviously in Mali. Obviously there was that awful incident in Algeria. The sense that you get in the Pentagon, is there any appetite there for conflict?

BOWMAN: There's absolutely no appetite to get involved in the Syrian conflict. And the big concern there, the chemical weapons that Bashar al-Assad has and can they leak out of the country? That's what everybody is really concerned about, and how do you corral those weapons after Assad falls? That's the main issue you hear at the Pentagon now.

And with Africa, that - it's right. The Americans, as Ofeibea mentioned, are now offering C-17 aircraft, cargo aircraft, to bring French troops and material from France down to Mali to help with that fighting in northern Mali. We could also see maybe refueling planes as well to help with the French Mirage jets that are bombing some of these Islamist places in the north. And also intelligence support, perhaps satellite photo, signals intelligence, so you can pick up what the Islamist militants are saying. But they keep saying in both Syria and Africa, no U.S. combat troops.

CONAN: Tom Bowman, NPR Pentagon correspondent. You're listening to special coverage from NPR News.

And one final question, Tom, and that's the growing tensions in East Asia as now fighter aircraft are in the skies over disputed islands, islands disputed between Japan and China.

BOWMAN: That's right. That's a real concern for the United States as well, and that's why you're seeing this pivot toward Asia in the coming years. The U.S. wants to have a larger presence in the area. That means probably more money for the Air Force and the Navy. And there's concern clearly with China, and where is China going.

Are they going to - you know, they're spending a lot more on their military. They're flexing their muscles. They're pushing into the South China Sea in disputes with the Japanese over some of those islands. And that's something that a lot of people in the Pentagon are watching and concerned about in the next couple of years.

CONAN: Tom Bowman, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Neal.

CONAN: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving is here still with us in Studio 3A. And, Ron, as we look at these various interests, yes, of course, the Africans would like to see the president take a more active role in Africa. Yes, there's the problem with the military sequesters and, well, the need to shift, or shift emphasis out to Asia. All of this is going to cost money, which the president, if you look at these budget problems, doesn't have.

ELVING: The president does not want to have any more money for any of these concerns. He would like to get a little bit of a peace dividend out of Afghanistan and Iraq. We're already seeing some of that. And there were already hundreds of billions of dollars in the planning for reductions to defense spending over the next 10 years. That was true before anyone ever started talking about a sequester. And this sequester is entirely the creation of the last deal that the Congress made with this president that was intended to raise the debt limit and promise that something would be done about the deficit and the debt. Well...

CONAN: And it will be an across-the-board cut, something would be so unthinkable. Of course, the Congress would make a deal to alleviate it. They punted first on the - on New Year's day and now some people are beginning to say, you know, that sequester doesn't look so bad.

ELVING: Yeah, well, if you want to see serious cuts in the federal deficit, you either have to do something on the revenue side - and we did a little bit on the revenue side back there to avoid the fiscal cliff, as you say, on the first of the year, and that's not insignificant. But the Republicans have now said that's all the revenues we're ever going to talk about. The president doesn't agree with that. But the Republicans have said now it's time to talk about spending. Now, let's talk about what the sequester can force us to do in terms of long-term spending reductions without hurting defense. Now, they agreed back in August 2011, to a 50-50 split of this sequester, so that it was a 10 percent across-the-board discretionary federal spending cut and that it would affect defense as much as anything else. They didn't like it and of course it was in there to make the Republicans take part.

CONAN: And we'll be seeing how all that plays out, well, not over the next four years, over the next four months as these decisions have to be made. We're talking about a number of the more immediate challenges the president will face in the months and years ahead. In a moment NPR's Kelly McEvers, recently back from Aleppo, in Syria, and NPR's Marilyn Geewax on the economic road ahead. What's been the biggest change in your life since four years ago, the president's previous inauguration? Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. This is special coverage from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is special coverage from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington where President Barack Obama an First Lady Michelle Obama have finally reached the front of the parade route on Pennsylvania Avenue and are heading back from the Capitol towards the White House. NPR's Linda Wertheimer is there at the steps of the Canadian embassy along the parade route. Linda, can you tell us what you're seeing.

WERTHEIMER: The presidential limousine just passed me and now it's still in front of the embassy rolling along Pennsylvania Avenue just right around where National Gallery is. Now, we're seeing all of the cars that - with all the security and so on coming after that, and then we'll see the beginning of the parade, although we've already seen some really impressive military units marching along. You know, Neal, one of the - this is kind of a race. The president leads the parade but he also has to beat it back to the White House because he will be standing on the review stand in front of the White House when the parade turns the corner on Pennsylvania Avenue. So he has to go see all of the people along the parade route and pay them the sort of attention to which they are entitled, and get out and walk if he decides to do that. And then he has to zoom in to the reviewing stand and watch the parade go by.

We have - we did see - we could actually see the president because they're using one of the presidential limousines which has windows you can see into. You'd have the feeling that the glass is about three inches thick, but still it's not dark glass, you can see. And so people were cheering as the president passed alone. And now we're watching a bunch of - especially children, racing down the street hoping to catch another glimpse of the president.

CONAN: And while the - there is a race, as you describe it, it's a race that's held at a walking pace. Secret security agents are, of course, walking alongside that presidential limousine.

WERTHEIMER: Yes. And then there's what the Secret Service folks used to call a battlewagon goes behind. And then here's another set of Secret Service agents who are riding on the running boards. They must have a - they specially-ordered trucks to actually find ones with running boards. And they're riding over there, so they are also watching everybody, looking at everything, prepared to jump down and run toward the president should they be needed. And then we have lots and lots and lots of motorcycle cops coming along. And then the real parade starts but the - where it were - I guess, part of the fact that this is such a cold day, as soon as the president passed, people began to sort of fade back into the streets possibly looking for some place warm or possibly looking for a better vantage point. But this beginning of the parade - this is really the, you know, the tippy-top of it - the president, the leader of the parade has gone by.

CONAN: And it will be going on into the gloaming for at least a couple of hours yet and Linda Wertheimer, thanks very much for the update.

WERTHEIMER: Sure.

CONAN: NPR's Linda Wertheimer joining us from the parade route. We're focusing on some of the immediate problems the president will be addressing. And joining us now is Ted Robbins, NPR correspondent, who covers a range of topics including immigration. He's with us through his home in Tucson. Good to have you with us.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Hi, Neal. Good to be with you.

CONAN: And the issue of immigration - the president's emphasis on guns since the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut - has immigration taken a backseat.

ROBBINS: Well, you know, it seems to be, I would guess, after federal finances and guns, I think it's third on the list. So it certainly, things have changed, a great deal from four years ago. You may be surprised by some of my observations. I - he had promised immigration reform four years ago and he didn't deliver. He took on healthcare back then and of course, the economy. But he sort of became the enforcer-in-chief over the last four years. He and his administration have deported more than a million and a half people, which is a record, and he spent $18 billion according to the Migration Policy Institute last year on enforcement. Implemented secure communities, and which is a local law enforcement sharing data of people they arrest with federal immigration authority. On the other hand, he also implemented the deferred action for childhood arrivals, and now 150,000 young people have work permits and the be OK to stay in the country for another two years. So the bottom line is, frankly, politically he got 70 percent of the Hispanic vote in November, and he reversed gains that the Republicans made under George W. Bush. And that - all of that together has created a - what I see as a new climate for immigration reform.

CONAN: Yet some people say Republicans are going to be facing more difficulties on these issues than may be apparent right now when there's actually legislation in front of them.

ROBBINS: Yeah. And I think what you're going to see is a difference between Republicans. The Republicans will try to do sort of a piecemeal approach as to, you know, taking enforcement separately from what to do with the estimated 11 million people here illegally, and guest worker programs. And I think the Democrats are going to try and do it all together.

CONAN: Yeah. And the Republicans clearly would like to take it bit by bit.

ROBBINS: You bet.

CONAN: And - but also, what is the situation down on the border like? Has that - how has that changed in four years?

ROBBINS: Well, there are fewer people crossing illegally. There is pretty much acknowledged a net-zero Mexican migration. There are fewer people coming in. And there's a, you know, sort of - people are not flooding in anymore. The jobs aren't there. The Mexican economy is doing better. And all of this has sort of given a background - I think it's given some political cover for some kind of immigration reform now.

You've got people like John McCain and Jeff Flake, both Arizona senators who were supporting immigration reform and then stopped over the last four years. And now they're coming back and saying that something does have to be done.

CONAN: We'll see how it plays out. Ted Robbins, thanks very much.

ROBBINS: My pleasure.

CONAN: NPR correspondent covering immigration, among other issues, Ted Robbins joined us from his home in Tucson. Kelly McEvers is an NPR foreign correspondent who's most recently been reporting from Syria and Yemen and joins us now by smartphone from New York City. Kelly, good to have you with us.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: And the crisis in Syria is ongoing, and it seems that for the past almost two years we've been describing what many people say this is the Srebrenica moment. This is the moment when it's become so bad the world must intervene and these moments pass and pass and pass.

MCEVERS: And yet it keeps on getting worse and worse, Neal. You're right, you know, we see these horrific massacres when, you know, government airstrikes or pro-government militias will go into a village and hundreds of people will be killed. And we think, you know, how could anyone stand by and sort of watch this happen? And yet this happens again and again. We're seeing levels of violence now in Syria that are, you know, higher than the worst days in Iraq, and there is no sign that it's going to let up.

In fact, I think, as we look forward, the picture is even more grim. I think a lot of analysts and people who go into Syria like myself see the situation getting even worse as, you know, diplomatic options fade and the two sides become more and more protracted in their view and less and less likely to compromise.

CONAN: And seemingly have less and less left to lose - everything left to lose, rather, in terms the president's supporters, the Alawite community.

MCEVERS: Absolutely. You know, it's just a minority community. President Bashar al-Assad is a member of the Alawite community. And, you know, they basically see this as a fight for their survival right now. This is an existential battle for them. They cannot see, you know, stopping support for him because doing that would be succumbing to the victors who may very well be bent on sectarian revenge and wiping them all out. I mean, that's the theory that they see.

So he knows he's got that support as a president, even though his international support is waning. He knows he can rely on that, in the military, in the people who surround him. And so right now, as many predictions as we get from various Western capitals that his days are numbered, I mean we're almost two years into this now and still he's holding strong.

CONAN: And just briefly, I need to ask you about the other war you've been covering, and that's not too strong a word, that's been going on in Yemen, where the United States is directly involved through the use of drones, which are regularly used to strike at targets described as terrorists.

MCEVERS: It's such a new kind of war, Neal. It's a war that's falling out of the sky. It's a war that wasn't authorized by Congress. It's a war that's not really even talked about. You can ask government - U.S. government officials about casualty figures and policies about who - who's, you know, supposed to be a legitimate drone target and who's not, and you don't get very many answers But yet in places like Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, the program has stepped up more under President Obama than any other administration.

And I think most analysts agree that there's no signs that that's going to change. They think it's a low-cost type of way to eliminate militants. And in a place like Yemen, I mean I think the big question is, does it create more militants on the ground?

CONAN: And yes, we've been hearing about al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the organization that took credit for that dreadful incident in Algeria, and it's been active in Mali as well. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is the group that has made several efforts to attack the United States from its bases there in Yemen.

MCEVERS: Right. You know, the sort of the famed failed underwear bomber case aboard a plane. You know, these are the kinds of militants that the U.S. is looking to target. The problem is on the ground the targeting isn't very precise. It isn't very accurate. And so when you do get such high civilian deaths and such a low level of accountability on the part of the Yemeni government and U.S. government, you get a lot of anger, a lot of resentment and a lot of, oftentimes, revenge. You know, one of the most recent attacks in Yemen was not far from the capital, driving distance from the capital, Sana'a.

And I think a lot of the people you saw there saying, why couldn't you just come and arrest this guy? You know, a guy was targeted, a drone fell. Nobody is clear whether he was in fact a militant or not. Said, why didn't you come and arrest this guy, bring him in, interrogate him? You knew where he lived. You know, maybe that would get you better intelligence than just bombing him from above.

CONAN: And while we see reports of much greater precision and many fewer civilian deaths in Pakistan, clearly that's not the case. And perhaps the quality of intelligence has something to do with it in Yemen.

MCEVERS: Absolutely. I mean we visited a family where, you know, it's - the father of the family definitely spent some time in Afghanistan. There is no question that he had ties with some bad guys. But this guy's got 26 children by few different wives. And already some of his sons, to avenge his death - he was hit by a drone strike. His son, his young teenage son was also killed in that strike. To avenge their deaths, you know, some of the other sons have already joined up with al-Qaida. So you have to wonder if it's an effective program.

CONAN: Kelly McEvers, thanks very much.

MCEVERS: You're welcome.

CONAN: NPR foreign correspondent Kelly McEvers with us from New York at this particular moment. You're listening to special coverage of Inauguration Day and some of the issues that President Obama will have to address in his next four years from NPR News.

And one of those issues is certain to be the economy. And joining us now is NPR's senior national correspondent - excuse me - senior business editor Marilyn Geewax. She joins us here in Studio 3A. And Marilyn, we've been talking with some listeners about what's changed since four years ago. Well, four years ago, we were in the heart of the great and awful recession. We were losing, what, 600,000 jobs a month?

MARILYN GEEWAX, BYLINE: Eight hundred thousand, actually, in the month of January '09.

CONAN: And we clearly stopped that terrible situation. The recovery is underway but very sluggishly.

GEEWAX: I think we've gotten so accustomed to thinking of the economy as just this grinding slow growth that we forget how terrifying it was four years ago at this time. The Dow was plunging. The economy was contracting violently, and it's turned around a lot since then. If you look at the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which kind of measures large stocks, and if you compare where we were at that time, it was plunging down to even below 7,000 - now it's back up to almost 14,000. So that means we've recovered. We're back to where we were before the Great Recession.

So a lot of good has happened but any of the 12 million people who still don't have jobs can assure you that it is still a very tough economy out there. But, you know, if you look at the situation where we are today as this second term begins, you can make a pretty good case for this might be a pretty good time. Corporations have really recovered a lot. They're earnings are up, productivity is up. The stock prices are generally up. And you have a lot of ability to expand there because they have a lot of cash on the sides. And banks are in much better shape as well. But you still have on the other side of the equation, maybe it's a scary thought, but Congress maybe the biggest enemy of the economy right now. But there are...

CONAN: It's just the uncertainty. The difficulty to reach agreement.

GEEWAX: But, you know, I heard a lot of talk - I've been making the party rounds this week...

CONAN: Oh, that's what we pay you for.

GEEWAX: Went around to hear the chit-chat. And I've talked to some members of Congress and lobbyists and various people. And actually there seems to be a sense in the last 24, 48 hours of maybe some optimism, that there is - I keep hearing the phrase pragmatic, realism, whatever. People are starting to come together on this idea that instead of facing one crisis after another in the next coming weeks, that they really will roll it all into sort of one big ball and over the next three months come up with at least a short-term plan for bringing some certainty to the economy.

And if that happens, gosh, there are lot of things out there that look good. The energy sector is certainly something that's - that offers a lot of hope. Technology is interesting. Agriculture - if we get some rain this spring and summer, the ag sector could really take off. So...

CONAN: Even housing.

GEEWAX: Yes. And especially - let me not bury the lead, as we say - housing. After all these awful years since 2007, the housing market has been terrible, terrible, terrible. And even when it perks up, it's only short term. But now you could talk to pretty much anyone in the industry, any economist, and people see true organic growth, that people are really coming back into the market. And you know, you can - some environmentalists don't like the idea that new housing starts are an economic driver. That's another argument on the environmental side. But in terms of just the economy, it is without question that new home starts drive the economy.

CONAN: And Ron Elving, NPR senior Washington editor, as we talk about an economy that some say may be ready to, well, if not take off, at least pose some steady gains, well, success loves success. Political paralysis gives way if all of the sudden increased income comes into the government and there's more money.

ELVING: It's amazing, amazing how if you start to make things better in some ways, other things get better as well. If revenues pick up either because the economy is getting better or because the government is recovering a little more through some higher taxes or a combination of the two, if the taxes don't in some sense or another abort the recovery, then you suddenly pick up a lot more money at a time when the economy is getting a little better, which means that a lot of government programs are not as strained and don't need as much money, so it is conceivable that this extraordinary trillion dollar a year growth in the federal deficit and the overall accumulated debt could actually reverse itself in future years without terribly drastic changes being made by the government. Now, certainly changes need to be made, but they don't need to be as draconian as it appeared that they needed to be just a year ago.

CONAN: Marilyn, quickly?

GEEWAX: Yes. And I just want to point out, we're in Washington so we're thinking about Congress. But state budgets also matter a great deal. And you know, four years ago at this time, state budgets were just in awful shape. Now you've really got states doing a lot better, and consumers too. They've gotten their debt under control a lot more, so there are reasons for optimism there.

CONAN: Marilyn Geewax and Ron Elving, nice to end on an optimistic note for once. The crowds on the mall have largely disappeared. Crowds estimated to be about half the size of four years ago. The oaths and speeches, all done. Tonight, two inaugural balls get underway in Washington, the last of the day's festivities before the president and vice president get back to work. Right now the parade continues to wind through the capital down Pennsylvania Avenue, heading past the White House. Stay with NPR News for the latest on today's events. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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