On Obama's Agenda: Immigration, Inequality And Unfinished Business

Ahead of the State of the Union, Robert Siegel sits down with White House press secretary Jay Carney. They discuss President Obama's plans for Tuesday night's address to Congress and millions of Americans.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. President Obama heads to Capitol Hill tonight for his fifth official State of the Union address. After a challenging year, it's a chance for Obama to turn the page and lay out his priorities for 2014 ahead of this fall's midterm elections. We'll bring you full coverage of the speech later tonight. First, a preview of what the president is expected to say.

SIEGEL: Joining us now, White House press secretary Jay Carney. Welcome to the program.

JAY CARNEY: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: We expect the president to be talking a good deal about inequality in this State of the Union, inequality meaning that both the poor are making too little and the very rich too much or just that there should be more opportunity for the poor?

CARNEY: You're right in the second part, Robert. He's going to talk a lot about the need to expand opportunity for everyone in America. The focus that many have had on income inequality in this country is really a focus on a symptom, a part of a broader problem, part of a stress that we've seen develop on the middle class over the course of three decades or more.

And what the president's going to focus on tonight is not just one of the symptoms of the problem, but on the solutions to the problem, on the cures to the problem. And, you know, he's going to really lay out three key principles, opportunity, action and optimism and he believes that we should all be focused in Washington on everything we can do to expand opportunity.

SIEGEL: What about the - what I believe the president would see as the disproportionate opportunities that the very rich have had over the past three decades, I guess, in America. Will he once again call for raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans?

CARNEY: No. Robert, as you know, he succeeded last year in fulfilling his promise to lock in tax cuts for middle class Americans for the vast majority of the American people and also to return the marginal tax rates at the very high end for millionaires and billionaires to what they were under President Clinton.

Now, he's going to focus on expanding opportunity and rewarding hard work. You saw this morning that he will be announcing tonight that, using an executive order, he is going to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors under new contracts to $10.10 an hour. That's a significant raise to the minimum wage.

And he's doing that because last year he called on Congress to raise the minimum wage across the country. Congress has, thus far, refused to act and he is determined to use the authority he has where he can to expand opportunity. It's very much his firm belief that in the United States of America if you're working full time, you're working hard, that you should not be paid a wage that still keeps you in poverty.

And that's why we ought to move - lift the minimum wage. He will, in addition to taking executive action, call again on Congress to pass a law to raise the minimum wage.

SIEGEL: The Republicans in the House now appear, at least Speaker Boehner appears ready, to propose some kind of immigration reform. Is what people at the White House hear something that the president thinks could, indeed, lead to agreement on a change of immigration law?

CARNEY: Well, while many people have understandably focused on the obstructionism we saw last year in Congress, one important thing to remember is that the Senate passed a strong comprehensive immigration reform bill with a bipartisan majority, with Republicans and Democrats. And that bill meets the principles the president laid out. He's hoping that the House will follow suit, that the House will, too, pass comprehensive immigration reform and that the result will be a bill landing on his desk that he can sign. I think and he thinks that the prospects are better for comprehensive immigration reform this year than they've ever been.

SIEGEL: A much reported on difference between what House Republicans want and what Democrats and what the president wants is over a pathway to citizenship for people who are now here illegally. Is it your impression that a Republican bill that didn't provide any path to citizenship for immigrants who get legal would not be signed by the president?

CARNEY: Well, we haven't seen anything from the Republicans yet so I don't want to comment on a bill or a proposal that doesn't yet exist. What I can tell you is that the president believes and he's said this many times that a part of comprehensive immigration reform should include, as the Senate bill does, a pathway to citizenship. It's a long pathway. It's one that puts a lot of requirements on those who want to travel to it and want to get the citizenship that it would provide at the end, but he thinks that's an important element. And he's very hopeful that that is what ultimately we will see emerge from the House and from the Congress.

SIEGEL: White House press secretary Jay Carney, thank you very much, Jay.

CARNEY: Thank you.

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