State Of The Union Comes At A Tricky Time For Obama

This week Obama gives his first official report on the State of the Union to Congress and the nation. The prime time address Wednesday night would be widely anticipated under any circumstances, but it comes at a time of stubborn high unemployment and economic resentment throughout the country. Host Liane Hansen talks to NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving about the week ahead and the challenges beyond.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Liane Hansen.

This week, President Obama gives his first official report on the State of the Union to Congress on the nation. The primetime address Wednesday night would be widely anticipated under any circumstances. But it comes at a time of stubborn high unemployment and economic resentment throughout the country. It's also a moment of great stress for the Democratic president and his majorities in the House and Senate.

Party leaders are discussing how to complete their health care legislation and proceed with the president's agenda after the loss of their 60th vote in the Senate.

Joining us to talk about the week ahead and the challenges beyond is NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Good morning, Ron.

RON ELVING: Good morning, Liane.

HANSEN: So much bad news for the Democrats last week: They lost Ted Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts the Supreme Court threw out the ban on corporations funding campaigns and the number of new jobless claims went up. I mean, what do you think? Is this worse possible moment for the president to give a State of the Union Speech?

ELVING: You could say that. You could also say it's highly opportune because it's clearly time for something different from the White House and here's a chance to offer something different while you have the nation's attention. He needs to change the storyline and right now giving a speech is probably his best chance for doing that.

HANSEN: Do you know what he's going to say?

ELVING: He's going to say he's listening to what the country is saying. He's learning from his reversals and setbacks. He's going to focus on jobs and the economy, of course, and he's not going to talk about rescuing and restoring and rebuilding the economy.

He's also going to sound more conciliatory on some things, I think, especially health care. And, at the same time, there's also going to be a counter message, if you will, of confrontation. You know, he's bringing back David Plouffe, who was the campaign manager in 2008, and they want some issues that will allow them to reconnect with the populist energy that they were riding back then and that some conservatives and Republicans seem to be riding now. So theyll be pushing their new tax on big bonuses and the banks and some new size and risk limits on those banks.

HANSEN: Explain why he needs to be conciliatory on the health bill. Go back to that.

ELVING: Well, I think thats his best chance of salvaging something there. The House, you know, could pass the Senate version of the bill tomorrow and the president could sign it into law. But right now the votes aren't there for that in the House. So the sponsors of the bill need to regroup.

They need to go beyond the Congress to the care providers and the insurers and the interest groups and say, help us. You were with us before. We all thought we needed to get something done. Let's figure out how we refashion this thing and bring at least a few Republicans over in the Senate. If they could do that, it would make it more popular in the country and change the calculus for the House.

HANSEN: But Senate Republicans seem to be united against this bill. Do you think that strategy will work?

ELVING: You know, the Republicans have been united against this bill, especially since the Democrats got 60 votes six months ago. Now, when that happened people said Democrats have the votes to do what they want, they're just going to be a big legislation machine.

But the mirage of that super majority of 60 seemed to make the Senate worse. And the Republicans shut down completely at that point on cooperation, voting in lockstep against everything, even things that they liked. And several individual Democrats played games by withholding the 60th vote, cutting special deals for themselves and that trashed the public image of the bill.

HANSEN: In 20 seconds, can you tell us, if everybody feels so badly, how is it going to pass?

ELVING: Well, of course the bill's fate at this point is uncertain. And the bill itself also remains largely a mystery to most people. They just see the deal making and the disappointment and the finger pointing. So they tell the pollsters they're against it. If you ask people about the basic provisions of the bill, they do pretty well. So you have to reassemble the coalition outside Congress, streamline the vehicle and present it again.

HANSEN: Well done, NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Thanks a lot.

ELVING: Thank you, Liane.

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