President To Talk Education, Healthcare Tonight

Melody Barnes, the White House Director of Domestic Policy, discusses plans to pull America out of the current recession. Tonight, President Obama addresses the nation and a joint session of Congress in a State of the Union-style address, where he will outline his plan to get the country's economy moving again.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, markets worldwide are taking a nosedive. We'll talk about why that might be and what investors can do.

But first, President Obama heads to Capitol Hill tonight for his first speech before a joint session of Congress. He's expected to talk about his plans to revive the economy. But with those plans already in motion, he may also use the platform to highlight some of his other policy initiatives, some of which have been eclipsed so far by economic concerns.

Joining me to talk about tonight's address is Melody Barnes. She's director of the Domestic Policy Council and an assistant to the president, and she's joining us from her office at the White House. Welcome back to the program, and please let me apologize for my voice, I'm a little bit under the weather. Sorry about that.

MELODY BARNES: No, no problem. Thank you so much for having me. I hope you feel better. With this weather it's easy to come down with something right now.

MARTIN: It is. And given that President Obama has been in office just a few weeks, he's not required to give this address tonight. It's not called a state of the union. It's called an address to a joint session of Congress. It has become customary. But what is President Obama's goal for his speech tonight? What's he trying to accomplish?

BARNES: Well, first of all, the president has always found it important to speak honestly and forthrightly to the American people. I mean, he believes that we are partners with the American people. This is their government. We have to talk to them about the crises and about the challenges that we face, and also to let them know that together we can move forward, and America's best days are ahead of us. That's his goal tonight, to be honest, to be forthright, to tell the American people what we plan to do together.

MARTIN: Well, some people know that there's a kind of difference between the hopeful tone of the campaign and the sort of somber message that he's imparted since he's taken office. Do you agree with that assessment? Do you think that there's been a change in tone?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BARNES: No, I think that the president - and I know this from talking to the president - and when he talks to his senior staff and others about his responsibility to the American people he believes that we're all in this together - that it's important for him to speak honestly with the American people that, you know, we can't say one thing behind closed doors and another thing in front of the public. So, he's going to be honest about the crisis that we're in. We can't sugarcoat that, everyone is feeling it. I think quite frankly the American people would think that, you know, he's a little bit crazy if he was out there saying everything is sweetness and light when they're feeling the economic crisis so dramatically.

But at the same time he's consistently said, he said it on election night and he says it - he said it going forward in his speeches to the American people - our best days are ahead of us. We can't get out of this. It may get tougher before it gets better, but it will in fact get better.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of getting tough, over the weekend the president made headlines by saying he plans to cut the federal deficit in half by the end of his first term. That would mean taking the deficit down from the current $1.3 trillion level down to $533 billion by 2012. As simply as you can - I think it's hard for a lot of people to understand - how is it possible, given the ambitious spending plans that he's already put into place that he's proposing, and cut the deficit at the same time?

BARNES: Right. Well, first of all, with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the legislation that he signed recently to create those new jobs and make long-term investments, one of our very specific goals - and one of the targets that we have in place for that bill - is that we spend that money over the course of two years and then that spending goes away. So that's not long-term spending. That's immediate stimulus spending.

But at the same time, the president has talked about his foreign policy commitments, his commitments with regard to the - our wars overseas. He's talked about the fact that we have to be honest in our budgeting and that we have to find places to cut spending and bring responsibility back to our budgeting by paying for the new programs that we're going to put out there, what every American family does. So, we're going to use all of those tools to cut our spending back. And at the same time - he said this during the campaign, he still says it - we have to make investments in our economy, in the American people, if we expect to grow our economy and create new jobs and new opportunities. So, we're striking the balance between doing those two things.

MARTIN: Along those lines, the president has promised that pressing, long-term problems are not going to be pushed aside, which is one of the things you just said. Health care is certainly one of those, and while we - I think everybody understands that that cabinet position has not yet been filled. Is there anything you can tell us about what President Obama is going to say about health care tonight, what his reform plans will look like?

BARNES: Well, I don't want to get ahead of the president. That would (laughing) be a bad thing for me to do (laughing) as a staff person. But I do want to say that the commitments and - his commitment to reforming our health care system remains constant. What he told the American people about that during the course of the campaign remains true. And I think as the budget goes forward - when people listen to the president tonight - that they will hear that he has placed emphasis on reforming our health care system and finding a way to work with Congress and setting the stage so that we can create that opportunity for the American people, for American business and for the American economy.

MARTIN: So, he's going to talk about it, but you're just not prepared to tell us what he's going to say?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BARNES: No. You don't want to get me in trouble, do you?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I wouldn't mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're talking about the president's prime time speech tonight, his speech to a joint session of Congress. We're speaking with Melody Barnes. She's director of the Domestic Policy Council and an assistant to the president.

Well, let's talk about one of the things the president's already put on the table - his plans to offer relief to Americans who are suffering from the foreclosure crisis. Now, obviously there are always going to be critics, but some say that part of the problem here is bankruptcy. The president, when he was a senator, did vote against the bankruptcy reform plans that Congress then put in place, which made it actually easier for Americans to - or for creditors to put Americans in bankruptcy. Does he think that that legislation went too far? Is he going to talk about bankruptcy reform tonight?

BARNES: Well, one of the things that he has been talking about in the context of the mortgage stability plan is the importance of bankruptcy, but that isn't the centerpiece of his plan. The centerpiece of his plan relies on the ability to - for borrowers to modify their loans, responsible borrowers to work with responsible lenders to modify their loans so that they can stay in their homes, and for other people to be able to refinance their homes if they find that now they owe more for their homes than their homes are worth, just because housing prices have been going downhill.

Those two components are the centerpiece of what he's proposed. Bankruptcy plays a role in that. We - what he said is that those who have three or four homes, who are able to go through the bankruptcy process and receive some modifications, shouldn't be at a greater advantage than people who own one home, like most of us, and for whom their home is the centerpiece of their savings plan and where they put all of their equity and all their savings. So, that plays a small role but it's not the whole picture.

MARTIN: And what about education? When you last joined us on this program, one of the things we were talking about during the campaign were the very different perspectives on how to achieve education reform, which is something that people on both sides of the aisle agree needs help, but there's a very sharp divide about how to get there. Is the president going to talk about education tonight?

BARNES: Right. And I remember we had a really lively conversation back in the summer about education. He will be talking about that. He consistently said over the two years of the campaign that we have to reform our education system while at the same time holding on to accountability standards. We have to thread the needle there, and he still believes that. We made a down payment with that in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and we're going to build on that going forward.

But he strongly believes that we have to have a 21st education system for our children that starts at zero, that starts the day they're born and it continues forward as we're thinking about college affordability, as we're thinking about the importance of community colleges. So many people in the public go to community colleges and for job training programs and other kinds of programs so people can receive the additional skills that they need. So, I think the American people will hear him talking about that.

MARTIN: And the environment of course. Environmentalists have a lot of hopes for this administration and this address has been a time when some presidents have highlighted new environmental initiatives. What's the president's message going to be on that tonight?

BARNES: Well, again, the Recovery Act allowed us to make a down payment there because, in addition to the fact that energy independence allows for job creation, allows us to save jobs - and that's been one of our goals - it also allows us to invest in a 21st century economy. So, those kinds of investments have been made, we want to build on that, to address our energy independence issues, and to also make sure that we are addressing our climate change issues and concerns. So, I think, again, when the budget comes out, when people listen to his speech tonight, they'll find that he's addressing those issues.

MARTIN: And finally, can we just talk about you for a minute?

BARNES: Oh, sure.

MARTIN: What's it been like for you? It's only been a month, but what's it been like? Is it like what you expected, you know?

BARNES: I don't know if - that you can any - in any way anticipate what it would be like to do this. I can certainly say it has been exciting. It's been a big challenge. But the support that we are receiving from the American people and personally the support I'm receiving from my hometown of Richmond, Virginia, my parents, my fiance, my family has been overwhelming. But I think what all of us feel is that the American people want us to succeed because they know that we want them to succeed. And every day we walk into the White House feeling that very keenly, you know.

At the same time, we're trying to, you know, figure out how to make the, coffee, you know, how to work the copying machines and find your way to the ladies room, as you do in any new workplace. So, it's been exciting and wonderful, all at the - and a challenge all at the same time.

MARTIN: Has it been disappointing, though, that you haven't - that the administration hasn't received more support from Republicans to this point?

BARNES: The president, I believe, is absolutely right. I mean, we know that old habits die hard in Washington, and in many ways people are - have become used to a certain way of doing business. But he is committed to the fact that he's going to extend his hand across the aisle and work with the Republicans and Democrats. We have seen that outside of the beltway in particular, you know, we've seen it to some extent inside the beltway. But certainly, his work with Governor Crist, his work with mayors and governors, Governor Schwarzenegger and others...

MARTIN: I'm sorry, those are both Republican governors. Governor Crist is the governor of Florida, Governor Schwarzenegger, of course, the governor of California - both Republican governors.

BARNES: Absolutely. We've seen that those opportunities exist and they are embraced, and we're going to continue to do that and expect that others will start to join us.

MARTIN: How will you know when you've succeeded, or if you've succeeded?

BARNES: I think one, the economy - we'll start to see a shift there, we'll start to see things turn around. We'll see projects and infrastructure being developed and being strengthened. We'll recognize that, you know, teachers are - that plans for laying-off teachers are turned around. We know, for example, that there were - there was a recent police corps class that was recently graduating and they were expecting to get their pink slips, and instead they're going to get their badges. That's a reflection of the fact that we're succeeding.

MARTIN: Melody Barnes is director of the Domestic Policy Council at the White House. She's an assistant to the president. She was kind enough to join us from her office at the White House. Melody Barnes, thank you.

BARNES: It's a pleasure, as always. Thank you.

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