Economic Opportunity A Big Topic For State Of The Union Speech

The president will deliver his State of the Union address Tuesday. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson talks with NPR's Rachel Martin about what to expect.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

President Obama will get his chance to speak directly to the American people when he gives his sixth State of the Union address Tuesday night. Expectations for what the president can actually get done this year are low, yet the president will try to rally support for programs aimed at improving income inequality. Here's how the president framed his economic agenda when he spoke to education leaders at a recent conference.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We have to make sure that there are new ladders of opportunity into the middle class. And that those ladders - the rungs on those ladders - are solid and accessible for more people.

MARTIN: To talk about what we can expect to hear along these lines this week, we're joined by NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So politically speaking, Mara, what does the president want or need out of this year's State of the Union?

LIASSON: Well, the State of the Union address is a really good chance for the president to press the reset button. He had a very difficult year last year. Even in an era of declining television audiences for these kinds of speeches, he still gets to talk to tens of millions of people. And he's going to set an optimistic tone, according to an e-mail that his advisor Dan Pfeiffer sent out.

The president is going to talk about ways to strengthen the middle class, grow the economy, and empower people who hope to join it. So not just to focus on income inequality but a focus on growth and mobility, which are more optimistic themes. He's also going to stress something that he's been talking about lately, which is that he'll work with Congress but he's not going to wait for Congress.

He's going to do things on his own with the pen, his pen and his phone. And I do think he's going to try to play off against those low expectations, in terms of what can be done this year, by saying this is going to be a year of action. And he's going to do as much as he can.

MARTIN: OK, so those are the rhetorical themes we're likely to hear. How do those translate into a legislative agenda?

LIASSON: Well, there's a difference between what the president wants to accomplish and what he hopes to accomplish. He wants to get the minimum wage raised. He wants to extend unemployment insurance. He wants to fund universal pre-K. He wants to pass some kind of immigration bill. Those are very hard. However, even of those things can't pass - they're popular issues, they're things that Democratic candidates can rally around in the upcoming elections - and that brings me to the other goal that the president wants to accomplish this year, which is limiting the damage to Democrats in the midterm election.

MARTIN: Aha. So how do you do that?

LIASSON: It's going to be hard. Six - midterm in a second term, generally the White House party loses seats. It looks like Republicans will pick up some seats in Congress. Districts are drawn there in a way that keeps Republican incumbents safe. In the Senate, the Democrats are defending a lot of seats in red states. It's going to be very hard there. There's a danger of losing their Senate majority.

And the states where the incumbents are running - Democratic incumbents - are hard ones for the president to make a difference; places like West Virginia, Arkansas, Louisiana. These are places where he couldn't even win a Democratic primary for president. So he will give them unifying themes and he can raise a lot of money, and he can be an optimistic activist president. And that's probably about it.

MARTIN: NPR senior political correspondent Mara Liasson, giving us a preview of the president's State of the Union address this Tuesday. Thanks so much, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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