Ailing Economy Expected To Dominate Obama's Speech

President Obama goes to the Capitol tomorrow night to make his first address to a joint session of Congress. Host Madeleine Brand turns to NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving for a look ahead to the speech.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX COHEN, host:

And I'm Alex Cohen. In a few minutes, our humorist Brian Unger goes to the Oscars.

BRAND: But first, President Obama meets with the nation's governors today. They're in Washington for the National Governors' Association meeting, and the president will sit down with the group of state leaders really divided over his economic stimulus plan. Tomorrow night, Mr. Obama speaks to a joint session of Congress. Joining me now for a look at all of that is NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving. And Ron, before we get to Tuesday's speech before Congress, let's talk about what's going on with the governors. It seems that most of these governors don't have a problem, any problem at all, taking the stimulus money. So, how big a deal is it that three Republican governors aren't taking some of that money?

RON ELVING: You know, if you look at that list of governors and you compare it to the vote percentages or vote shares for Barack Obama in November, I think you'll find South Carolina, Louisiana and Mississippi pretty close to the bottom of the list among the states in terms of how much they supported Barack Obama. These are three governors who probably can go back home and say, we're going to take the federal money insofar as we need to or see our way clear to, but we don't want to have a lot of strings coming from the federal government, from Washington, and we'll see how the people react in those three states. But bear in mind that these are three states that were not big fans of Barack Obama in the first place. And you'll notice, too, that a lot of other Republican governors from the rest of the country, particularly from big states like California and Florida, said, look, if there are some folks who don't want all these money, let them send it our way; we'll take it.

BRAND: Right. And indeed, he said he is releasing some of that money immediately.

ELVING: Yes, he said that by the time some of the governors get home at mid-week, there will be $15 billion in the process of being transferred into available accounts for them that they can tap into for Medicaid, which is a shared function between the federal and the state governments, where there's always a lot wrangling going back about who pays for what and how much money the federal government is providing. So, here is $15 billion right away, and there'll be lots more coming to for those of you who do appreciate the economic stimulus you're getting from Washington.

BRAND: All right. And tomorrow night, he'll be speaking before a joint session of Congress about challenges facing the nation. Now, I think we all are pretty well aware of the challenges that we face. What are the challenges that the president faces?

ELVING: Here's a guy who's just come in to office - he has been, oh, just a little over one month - and while he hasn't had a major foreign-policy crisis yet, he's got an awful lot of things falling apart all around him. He's got the banking system falling apart, the manufacturing base falling apart, the unemployment numbers sky rocketing, all kinds of near - well, let's just call it extreme concern among the average citizens as well as among people who are as schooled in all of these as Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. And in the midst of all that, people are looking to this relatively young man with only a few years experience in Washington and saying, here please, solve everything. There is an enormous personal challenge being handed to this 47-year-old man.

BRAND: So, what do you think is the key thing he needs to get across with the speech?

ELVING: He needs to get across at once the gravity of the situation - which I think he's been doing and certainly in the inauguration speech and so on - the gravity of the situation, how important it is for people to focus on this and to say, this is not an ordinary downturn, not an ordinary recession; this is a serious a threat to the way the United States has conducted business throughout most of its history. So, he needs to keep the gravity in front and center, but he also needs to do a better job of conveying some of that optimism that he is famous for. He's known as a person who takes the positive view as someone who is a can-do-person, "Yes, We Can." He needs to get the focus back on some of that spirit and lift people a little bit, not just keep emphasizing the negative.

BRAND: Well, it seems, Ron, I mean, as you say, this is a lot to put on the shoulders of one relatively young president; you know, as you say, we've got the global economic crisis, the revamping of the social safety net; we've got a couple of wars going. Is this just too much for one person to handle?

ELVING: I believe it is an unreasonable expectation to ask one human being to take on all of these crises, to know enough, to maneuver enough people, to actually be able to tackle all these crises at once. At the same time, that is the way our system works, and when presidents have been successful, it's been because they were able to meet multiple crises all at once and keeping the nation focused on the future and as unified as possible.

BRAND: NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Thanks, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Madeleine.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: There's more coming up on Day to Day from NPR News.

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