Obama To Deliver State Of The Union Address Tuesday

As President Obama prepares to deliver his annual message, members of his team are making media appearances to talk about why they think the president will be able to accomplish more this year than last. But the president faces strong headwinds, according to public opinion polling.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

President Obama delivers his State of the Union speech this week, facing a more difficult climate than when he delivered the speech a year ago. When he spoke in 2013, the president had just won reelection, his approval ratings were high, people spoke of Republicans signing on to big initiatives like immigration reform, and the economy was improving. This week, the economy is still improving but little else has worked out as the White House might have planned.

Joining us, as she does most Mondays, is Cokie Roberts. Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So how much does this moment mean to the president?

ROBERTS: Well, of course we always talk about it being a make or break moment, which is a little bit dramatic. But look, it is a moment that he gets to get the attention of the American people. State of the Union messages that don't have the same viewership they once did, but about 10 million people do tune in. And so this is a chance to try and re-convince folks that they can trust them to do the right thing.

An ABC/Washington Post poll yesterday, only 37 percent of the respondents said they had confidence in the president to make the right decisions for the country. Now, that's very low. It's better than either the Democrats in Congress at 27 percent or the Republicans at 19 percent. But he's the decider, as George W. Bush used to say, so it's a rough number for him.

INSKEEP: Well, you mentioned George W. Bush. He's on my mind, because in the first year of President Bush's second term his approval ratings also went far south. It was after Hurricane Katrina but it seemed to be something more than that. It had been a difficult presidency and people just seem to be tired of this particular chief executive in 2005. Is something similar happening to President Obama?

ROBERTS: Yes, I think so. I mean you're seeing it on personal traits as well as policy issues. But those policy issues are a problem, I mean the economy, health care, foreign policy, more people disapprove than approve of those policies. The one exception is his handling of terrorism and that number has also gone to an historic low for his presidency, on people approving of it. And now the Sochi Olympics have brought that issue back front and center, the question of terrorism at the Olympics.

But even before now, when people have disagreed with the president, they have found him empathetic. Not so in this poll. The key question that we ask for any candidate is, does he care about people like you? And when Obama came into office, 72 percent in this poll said yes. Now more say no than yes.

Now, all those numbers are significant because it means it makes it hard to convince people in Congress to go along with you if the American people don't seem to be going along with you, which is part of the reason why the president is taking about executive action - using his pen and his phone and going around the Congress.

INSKEEP: So he's trying to get things done in the White House. But of course there's another round of elections coming up for Congress later this year. Will Democrats have to run away from the president?

ROBERTS: Probably to some degree; it depends on the district they're in. But the Democrats have problems as a party. The Republicans are trusted more on what's by far the most important issue: the economy. And then on a very fundamental question of which party has a better idea of the size and role of the federal government, that's the difference between the parties. The Republicans also are doing better on that question.

So that's a problem for Democrats and it's showing up in this generic question, as we call it: Which party should control the Congress? That's tied right now, whereas the Democrats were up nine points last May.

INSKEEP: There was a time when Republicans thought they had a lot of advantages on social issues. What about now?

ROBERTS: Well, they didn't in the last election and they didn't in the off year Virginia governor's race, where those social issues worked against them. And it's still true that Democrats do better on issues like abortion and gay marriage, though Republicans do on guns. But the fact is that those issues just aren't all that important to most voters. They're down on the list of things.

But the Republicans are trying to keep their candidates from talking about them much. They had a little problem last week, when former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee talked about women's libido and contraceptions in the president's health care plan. Republicans are hoping that their candidates don't say things like that.

INSKEEP: OK. Thanks as always. That's Cokie Roberts on this Monday morning. The State of the Union speech is tomorrow.

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