Kitchen Table Reactions To State Of The Union

President Obama laid out his plans for the next year during his State of the Union address. Host Michel Martin speaks with a group of diverse people about the address and their hopes for the year ahead. Her guests are Oakland Lewis, who is looking for work, immigrant rights activist Gaby Pacheco, and Trei Dudley, a college student.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. First of all, you might be noticing that the program sounds a little bit different today. We are having some technical difficulties that are not allowing us to play some of the music and other elements you're used to hearing. But we're still going to have great conversations.

First we're going to talk about President Obama's State of the Union address, his first since he won reelection. Last night before a joint session of Congress, he spoke about revamping the country's immigration system, placing more limits on guns and withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.

But President Obama's main focus was on the economy. He said a growing economy that creates good middle-class jobs must be the north star that guides our efforts. So while the president's speech is addressed to Congress, more importantly it is delivered to the American people.

So we decided to ask a group of people whose concerns were very much at the center of the president's address to give their reactions. Oakland Lewis is 47 years old. He's been without steady full-time work since he was laid off from his job as an account manager with a major financial services company three years ago. He's with us from Cleveland. Welcome, Oakland Lewis. Thanks so much for joining us.

OAKLAND LEWIS: Great to be here. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Trei Dudley is 18. She's a freshman at the University of Arkansas. She's with us from Fayetteville. Welcome to you, Trei. Thank you for joining us.

TREI DUDLEY: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And also with us - you've met her here before - Gaby Pacheco. She's 28 years old. She came to the U.S. without documentation when she was seven. She has been working since then as an advocate for herself and other immigrants and she's with us in D.C. Gaby, welcome back. Thank you so much for joining us too.

GABY PACHECO: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And I'll start with you. What did you think of the president's speech and what was the most important thing about it to you?

PACHECO: Well, the ending. And I think President Obama always has a way to end his speeches and leave everybody either wanting for more or feeling really inspired. And I think that I was used to the rhetoric that he talks about immigration. I said yes, yes, yes, we've heard that in the speech that you gave in Nevada.

But at the end he talked about we are all citizens. And he said this beautiful line where he talked about it's a word that doesn't just describe our nationality or legal status. And then he went to add and said that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others.

And so to me that's the fundamental thing and why we're talking about immigration, the rights of American citizens to be able to, you know, protect their work, protect their country, but also the rights of human beings like myself that feel American. Feel they're a part of this nation, the fabric of it, and feel citizens but without papers.

MARTIN: Oakland Lewis, what about you?

LEWIS: I thought it was overall a very good speech. You know, from where I sit having, as you mentioned, been out of work for a while, I was more keenly looking for more specifics about job creation. I know that these things, you know, take a long time to happen but I wanted to get some more specifics about how that will play out.

But overall a very good speech. Like the young lady said, the wrap-up was very, you know, inspirational. But, you know, for me I just want to see, OK, how can I add some value to a company and get value in the form of some money, you know, for my family.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end I want to mention you're doing what you can do. You're a member of the Career Transition Center in Cleveland, you know, for example.

LEWIS: Yep.

MARTIN: So you haven't just been sitting on your hands for the last, you know, couple of years.

LEWIS: Nope.

MARTIN: The president did make some specific, you know, proposals. I mean, talking about the minimum wage and things of that sort. But your sense is that wouldn't help you?

LEWIS: That's correct. For someone like myself I often wonder do we actually count in those numbers that they report? You know, a person who has been out of work for a long time and has fallen off of the unemployment rosters. I mean, do we actually track those people? And maybe those numbers are a little skewed because of that. So that's my take on that.

MARTIN: Do you feel like - and I guess I have to just go right there and ask do you feel that the president and I guess other national leaders, do they still remember you? Do you think that they're still thinking about you?

LEWIS: I would hope so. But I don't see any action towards that end.

MARTIN: Trei Dudley, what about you?

DUDLEY: I agree. I also thought it was a really, really good speech. I liked what he said about, you know, making sure that education is definitely at the forefront of the things that we focus on. And then also I thought it was interesting that he mentioned starting so young at preschool. I feel like that's not something that I've personally heard before that's really focused on.

And so the stats that he gave about that were really interesting to me as well as the new plan that he has for the curriculum for high school. So I thought that was really interesting.

MARTIN: He talked a lot about education in the speech. As you mentioned, he talked about the desire to make preschool universal, to make it universally available. Not just preschool but quality preschool.

DUDLEY: Yes.

MARTIN: And to really kind of talk more about revamping our educational system so that people have the opportunity to advance because the more education you get the more likely you are to be employed. When you hear that, Trei, does that make you feel encouraged? Does it give you kind of a boost that you're on the right track? Or do you still feel - I don't know. Do you feel like you're part of the national conversation, is I guess what I'm interested in.

DUDLEY: I do. I do but I also know that there's a lot of kids who might not feel the same way. You know, I think - I don't know. I like how - one thing that I did want to mention was that he talked about, you know, how the more money that we spend on, you know, education and stuff like that the less money that, you know, hopefully we'll have to spend on teen pregnancies.

And I don't know; I think it was creative how he linked that stuff together. Because I do have friends who, you know, took that - graduated from high school not necessarily being able to go to college because, you know, they did get pregnant at a young age. And I see that as definitely a huge issue.

So if we focused, you know, more on education hopefully things like that wouldn't happen.

MARTIN: Well, he did also talk about housing and I understand that that's an issue that's close to your heart as well, Trei, because, you know, your mom raised you and your siblings on her own and for a while you also lived in a homeless shelter.

DUDLEY: Right.

MARTIN: So this is not something that's just an abstract for you.

DUDLEY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about President Obama's State of the Union address. We've gathered our own roundtable of pundits. They're our own pundits. Oakland Lewis is currently looking for work. Trei Dudley is a student at the University of Arkansas. And Gaby Pacheco is an immigrants' rights activist.

We do actually have one clip from Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a rising star in the Republican Party, former Speaker of the House in Florida. He delivered the Republican's tradition - or the opposition party traditionally offers a response to the president's address and Marco Rubio was selected to do that. Kind of a tough message. I'll just play a short clip and hope it works.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS RESPONSE)

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: At a time when one showdown after another ends in short-term deals that do little or nothing about our real problems, some are starting to believe that our government leaders just can't or won't make the right choices anymore.

MARTIN: Gaby, as we were talking about earlier, the Marco Rubio speech was a teeny bit overshadowed by the fact that he had some kind of - how can I put it? Some odd...

PACHECO: A gaffe.

MARTIN: ...stage directions. Like, he kept sort of wiping his brow, taking a sip of water in the middle of his address. So there was a lot of Twitter conversation about that. But let's talk about the substance of the speech. Do you think that was effective? And how did it strike you?

PACHECO: I think he was very strong. I think that his viewpoints and the way he was delivering it was very effective. And one of the things, the trademarks of Marco Rubio is this ability to speak to the people and communicate his message. And I think a lot of Republicans, aside from, you know, the little things that happened in his speech - and I think all those slights on him really were taking a toll on him - but a lot of people liked what he had to say.

A lot of people actually mentioned - Sean Hannity mentioned that that was by far the best speech he had ever heard. So to me what I was focusing on and what I was trying to hear was on immigration. I feel that he could've given us a little bit more. He has done in the past. He was very cautious. I think he...

MARTIN: But he's one of the leaders of a bipartisan group...

PACHECO: Correct.

MARTIN: ...trying to advance an immigration compromise.

PACHECO: Correct.

MARTIN: And so he's gotten some note for that. And in fact, had said that he'd hoped to do that before but that nobody was listening. And now that they are...

PACHECO: Yeah. And I think even Rand Paul in his Tea Party address went a little bit further into the immigration debate than Senator Rubio. But I think all of this are good signs. The fact that the three different people that spoke last night to the nation, to Republicans, Democrats and Tea Partiers, they all had one message, which was we need immigration reform and we need it now, and I think that's a great sign.

MARTIN: Oakland Lewis, what about you? One of the big points of contrast that Senator Rubio hoped to draw with the president was a philosophical one, arguing that the government is not the solution to your problem. In some ways it is the problem. And I wanted to ask how that message resonated with you as a person whose - you know, you spent your career in the private sector, but you're struggling right now. How did it strike you?

LEWIS: Well, I didn't hear his speech per se. I mean, it was in the background. I wasn't really listening to it because I was getting ready for bed, but I will tell you that I think that we need to come to some sort of agreement when it comes to all the points that they were talking about.

I mean for someone like myself, I think that it's very difficult to continue to be positive. However, I try to do that. But a person like myself who is out of work for two years, almost three years, and just can't seem to get a fit, you know, it strikes me as we are forgotten. You know, I'm dealing with my own fiscal cliff, so to speak, as the politicians like to call it, and it's been challenging.

MARTIN: Can you just talk a little bit - we're going to take a short break in a minute, but could you talk a little bit about what you've tried to do to get employment over the last couple of years? Do you mind?

LEWIS: No, not at all. I've been going to various - like the (unintelligible) center, looking at the various postings. Applications - I don't know how many applications I've sent in, and not only myself. I mean, the cohorts that I speak to - I mean you send applications so many times that sometimes you send an application that you've sent before and didn't realize it. You know, it becomes so daunting that it's really a challenge to stay positive. However, you know, I do try to do that.

MARTIN: Well, we know that you're also a motivational speaker and people...

LEWIS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...call upon you to kind of buoy their own spirits, but...

LEWIS: Exactly.

MARTIN: How are you making it? How have you been making it these last couple years?

LEWIS: Well, luckily my wife works and she's been a real steady point in our life right now and she's been the one who basically has taken over the bill payments and things like that because, quite frankly, you know, I don't contribute anything like that anymore right now on a consistent basis.

So I do some temporary work when it comes up and, like I say, like you mentioned, I do some speaking, and you know, this may be an opportunity to do some entrepreneurial things. Like you said, helping people to stay positive. But besides that, it's been quite interesting.

MARTIN: We need to...

LEWIS: It's been...

MARTIN: It's tough.

LEWIS: It's a growing experience, you know.

MARTIN: A growing experience, a challenge. Right. A character building experience.

LEWIS: Exactly.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break but when we come back, our panel of commentators is going to return and talk more about the president's state of the union address. We're speaking with Oakland Lewis. He's currently looking for work, as we mentioned. Immigrants' rights activist Gaby Pacheco and University of Arkansas student Trei Dudley. When we come back, we're going to talk about the president's call to action on gun policy, so we hope you'll stick around for that. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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