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Can Obama's Big Speech Win Over His Skeptics?

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Can Obama's Big Speech Win Over His Skeptics?


Can Obama's Big Speech Win Over His Skeptics?

Can Obama's Big Speech Win Over His Skeptics?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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President Obama heads to the Capital on Wednesday for his first State of the Union address, facing an approval rating below 50 percent. NPR Political Junkie Ken Rudin discusses what the president should say to restore faith in his policy agenda. Rudin is joined by former presidential speech writers Peter Robinson, who wrote for Ronald Reagan, and Paul Glastris, who was on Bill Clinton’s staff.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The president heads for Capitol Hill, parakeet politics in New York, and a phony business break-in in D.C. It's Wednesday and time for a so-too edition of the Political Junkie.

Unidentified Man #1: I have the distinguished honor of presenting to you the president of the United States.

Unidentified Man #2: Mr.�Speaker, the president of the United States.

Unidentified Man #3: Mr.�Speaker, the president of the United States.

Former President RONALD REAGAN: You and I stand on the shoulders of giants.

President LYNDON B. JOHNSON: I will be brief, for our time is necessarily short, and our agenda is already long.

President BILL CLINTON: Ladies and gentlemen, the state of our union is strong.

(Soundbite of applause)

President GERALD R. FORD: Today, we have a more perfect union than when my stewardship began.

President GEORGE H. W. BUSH: The hand remains extended. The sleeves are rolled up. America is waiting, and now we must produce.

Unidentified Man #8: Good night, God bless you.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: Every Wednesday, NPR political editor Ken Rudin joins us to talk about politics. In just a bit, we'll focus on what President Obama has to get done tonight with former presidential speechwriters Peter Robinson and Paul Glastris, but there's plenty of other political news.

As Harold Ford gives Kirsten Gillibrand the bird in New York, Beau Biden will not run for his dad's old Senate seat. Congressman Mike Pence declines to challenge Evan Bayh for Senate in Indiana. The Illinois primary approaches; and Marion Barry, the Arkansas congressman, not the D.C. councilman, announces that he will retire.

Later this hour, buzz-flash from Apple's big announcement today. What is an iPad?

But first, as usual, we begin with a trivia question. Political junkie Ken Rudin joins us here in Studio 3A. Hey, Ken.

RUDIN: Hi, Neal, that was a great bunch of tape. Actually, I didn't recognize Howard Dean's scream there. I wasn't - waiting for that. And also welcome because, you know, Neal Conan was gone you were gone for two weeks. I saw the headlines while you were gone: Conan gets fired, NBC says goodbye to Conan. I thought you were gone.

CONAN: Or being picked up by Fox.

RUDIN: Well, I'm glad you're back. Anyway, trivia question. The Super Bowl is coming, not this Sunday but a week from Sunday, and for a while, there was a possibility of having two undefeated teams in the Super Bowl, both the Indianapolis Colts and the New Orleans Saints. Both started off at 13 and 0.

CONAN: Colts went to 14 and 0, but okay.

RUDIN: They did, and they lost to the Jets.

CONAN: Yes, they did.

RUDIN: Switching to politics, when was the last time a presidential race was held between two I'm talking about major party two candidates who had never been defeated in a bid for office?

CONAN: If you think you know the answer, the last two presidential candidates of a major party, both of whom were never...

RUDIN: Running against each other.

CONAN: Running against each other, never defeated for political office previously, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us, The winner, of course, gets a fabulous no-prize T-shirt. We can tell you answer is not Washington and Adams.

But anyway, Ken, let's turn to the big speech tonight for the president. This is a big moment for him.

RUDIN: Well, it is, and we're talking about the State of the Union, but we're really talking about the state of the Obama administration and what he wants to accomplish. It's amazing. He had all these plans, and everything was going great, and suddenly this guy named Scott Brown was elected in Massachusetts, and everything's gone out the window.

That's simplistic, and that's silly, but that seems to be the view among many Democrats, that they were on this unstoppable march towards health care and climate control, but when Scott Brown gave the Republicans the magic number, 41, it gave the Democrats the un-magic number of 59, and now they feel like they have to start from scratch.

So there's no health care bill on the horizon. Harry Reid said yesterday that we're not even thinking about that anymore, at least it's not part of our...

CONAN: Nancy Pelosi did say today the Democrats do expect to get a health care bill out. She didn't say how, and she didn't say when.

RUDIN: Exactly, and there have been so many deadlines in the past, and of course, they could have, theoretically before Scott Brown gets sworn in the House, theoretically could pass the Senate version of it, but Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats say look, no. There are too many differences.

So for all the the magic number of 60 and all the numbers that the Democrats had in Congress, they were not getting what they want.

CONAN: And in what might by fallout from the Scott Brown victory and the reversal of fortunes, well, we have Beau Biden - the attorney general of the state of Delaware, son of the vice president of the United States, widely expected to declare to run for his father's old Senate seat - says, you know, I'm going to run for re-election as attorney general.

RUDIN: That was a shocker. There were several reasons given. Of course, one of the reasons the Republicans like to say is that Mike Castle, who is the at-large congressman he's put on some weight, that's why he's the at-large congressman he's run statewide 12 times, won every election, and he's very popular. Democrats say that, no, Beau Biden is very strong on child molestation cases, things like that, and there's a serious case going on in Delaware.

CONAN: In Lewes, Delaware, yes.

RUDIN: Right, exactly, and that as attorney general, he wants to finish but again, it gives at least, the very least, a toss-up seat, solidly Democratic with all those six times that Joe Biden won, actually won a seventh time, 2008, and now it looks like it'll go Republican.

CONAN: And the Democrats appear to be playing catch-up as the Illinois primary approaches for, what, the old seat of what's-his-name, Barack Obama.

RUDIN: Well, it's also another what's-his-name is Roland Burris, and that's a name that both Democrats would like to forget. He is next Tuesday is the primary. It opens, it starts off the 2010 election season, the primary season, and while this is also like Massachusetts, a relatively sold blue state, you know, likely to elect Democrats, Mark Kirk is a moderate, five-term Republican congressman who has a good shot of winning that seat, as the Democrats seem to be battling among themselves.

CONAN: Well, we have some people on the line who think they know the answer to this week's trivia question, which is: The last two major-party presidential candidates to run against each other who had never been previously defeated for elective office. And let's see if we can begin with Dale(ph). Dale's calling us from Greenville in Michigan.

DALE (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

DALE: I think it's what's-his-name Barack Obama and John McCain.

RUDIN: That is not correct because in 2000, Barack Obama ran for Congress in Illinois and lost to Bobby Rush in the Democratic primary. So Barack Obama did lose one of his first campaigns.

CONAN: Nice try, though.

DALE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to this is Burt(ph), Burt with us from Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

BURT (Caller): Kerry and Bush, '04.

CONAN: Well actually, both candidates have lost. George W. Bush ran for Congress in 1978 I don't know why I know these things from Texas in lost. John Kerry ran for Congress in Massachusetts in 1972 and lost. Both lost their first House races.

BURT: Oh well.

CONAN: Good try. Let's go next to Bob, if I can push the right button here, Bob with us from Rochester in Minnesota.

BOB (Caller): Yes, this is Bob Sixta(ph) from Rochester, and I believe the correct answer is Lyndon Baines Johnson and Barry Goldwater, who both were undefeated.

RUDIN: Well, Barry Goldwater certainly was undefeated, but Lyndon Johnson, I think it's 1941, the first Senate race he ran in, he ran in a Democratic primary and lost. He came back in 1948.

BOB: Okay.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call.

BOB: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to this is Donald(ph), Donald with us from Bernie, Texas.

DONALD (Caller): Yes, sir, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole.

RUDIN: Well, Bob Dole of course did try for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988.

CONAN: That's not losing an election.

RUDIN: But more importantly, Bill Clinton was defeated in 1980 for governor, for re-election to governor, to Frank White in Arkansas. He also ran for Congress in 1974 against, as you well remember, John Paul Hammerschmidt, and lost that race, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: All right, thank you very much. John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt was the other candidate in that race.

RUDIN: His name was my name, too.

CONAN: Let's go to Paula(ph), Paula with us from St.�Paul.

PAULA (Caller): Hi, I think it's Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

RUDIN: Well, that's not correct, either, because Jimmy Carter, the first time he ran for governor was 1966, and he lost the Democratic primary that year.

PAULA: Thank you.

CONAN: Are you counting Democratic primaries?

RUDIN: Absolutely, oh absolutely.

CONAN: All right, all right. Let's see if we can go next to...

RUDIN: Never defeated in a bid for office.

CONAN: Walt(ph) Walt in Gainesville, Florida.

WALT (Caller): How about Dewey and Truman?

RUDIN: Dewey and Truman, well, actually when Dewey ran in 1948, he had already lost the presidency to FDR in 1944. So that's not going to...

CONAN: Nice try, though. We like the historical, dipping deep into history. Let's see if we can go to Bill(ph), Bill with us from Philadelphia.

BEN(ph) (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

BEN: Hi, Ben, actually.

CONAN: Oh, I'm sorry.

BEN: Are we talking Calvin Coolidge and John Davis?

RUDIN: Well, we're not, and I will tell you that I can't think of whether John Davis has ever lost for something before, but that is not the last instance, much more recent than that.

BEN: More recent? Okay. Thanks.

CONAN: But Cal is silent on that issue.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Willie(ph), Willie with us from Boca Raton in Florida.

WILLIE (Caller): I bet you I got the answer. That guy was pretty close with Johnson, but what about Kennedy and Nixon?

RUDIN: I expected that answer, and here's the reason why I'm not accepting that answer: John F. Kennedy ran for vice president in 1956, lost at the convention. So he was defeated in his bid for office. He ran for vice president, was beaten at the convention.

CONAN: Willie, I think the appeals court might take your case.

WILLIE: Okay, thanks.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much, all right. Let's see if we can go next to this is Robert, Robert with us from Fort Lauderdale.

ROBERT (Caller): Yes, Adlai Stevenson and Eisenhower.

RUDIN: That is the correct answer.

CONAN: Ding, ding, ding, ding. Absolutely right, Robert, and for that correct answer, you will be receiving a fabulous no-prize T-shirt. We're going to put you on hold and collect your information.

ROBERT: Great.

CONAN: Of course, you'll have to promise to send us a digital picture to add to our wall of shame.

RUDIN: I should add, by the way, this is before Ike lost to Tina Turner.

CONAN: But Ike could never run for elected office before. So that makes it easy.

RUDIN: And Adlai Stevenson had only run once before, elected governor of Illinois in 1948.

CONAN: All right, Robert, we're going to put you on hold and collect your information.

In the meantime, we have to go down to a well, you have to say almost Watergate-style break-in in Louisiana, where the office of Senator Mary Landrieu was infiltrated by, among others, one of the activists involved in the ACORN case.

RUDIN: Well, I would describe it a third-rate phone tampering, to quote 1972, '73. Here's what happened. On Monday, four people were arrested in New Orleans, basically trying to tamper with the phones at Senator Mary Landrieu's office.

The reason this has gotten national attention, as it should in any event, but one of the people arrested was James O'Keefe. He was the guy who was dressed as a pimp when he walked into ACORN offices and got them talking about how he can have a prostitution ring legalized, you know, what kind of ways you can get it legalized.

CONAN: Set up a brothel, yes.

RUDIN: Set up a brothel - and it basically really embarrassed ACORN tremendously. O'Keefe became a big hero in conservative circles.

CONAN: An investigative journalist, they called him.

RUDIN: And one of the reasons, and one of the reasons Congress voted to cut off some of the federal funding to ACORN because of this embarrassment. Meanwhile, O'Keefe was part of two guys came in pretending they were phone repairmen, were looking to work on the whole phone system at Landrieu's office while O'Keefe was already in the office, like taping it with his cell phone camera.

CONAN: Aha, so he would have evidence of what was going on.

RUDIN: And also, one of the other people who was arrested was a guy named Robert Flanagan. His father is the acting U.S. attorney for Western Louisiana. It's very ugly. It reeks of something I don't know if it's Watergate but certainly something criminal, and even though the attorneys say, well, they weren't out to do anything illegal I don't know what they were doing, but...

CONAN: Apparently, the federal authorities disagree.

RUDIN: But it's ugly, and just as the left was not so happy with the story about ACORN, the right is ignoring this story completely, or if they're not ignoring it, they're saying well, let's wait and see what it's all about.

CONAN: The truth will set me free was one of the quotes. It's Political Junkie day. Ken Rudin is with us. Up next, President Obama's State of the Union. What does he need to say in tonight's address to regain the momentum? 800-989-8255. Or drop us an email. The address is We'll be speaking with two former presidential speechwriters, our usual team, Paul Glastris and Peter Robinson. Stay with us for that. Of course, Ken Rudin will be here, too. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In less than seven hours, President Obama takes the podium at the Capitol tonight to address both houses of Congress in his first State of the Union message, and he's nice enough to do it on a Wednesday.

Ken Rudin joins us here every week, our political junkie. You can also check out his blog and his Podcast at And we've invited two former presidential speechwriters, regular guests on this program, to join us to talk about what President Obama needs to say tonight to galvanize support for his agenda.

In just a moment, Peter Robinson, who wrote speeches for President Reagan, now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution; and Paul Glastris, a former speechwriter for President Clinton, now the editor of the Washington Monthly.

And what do you think the president needs to say tonight? 800-989-8255. Zap us an email, You can also join the conversation at our Web site. Thats at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Paul Glastris is here with us in Studio 3A. Peter Robinson is with us from a studio at the Stanford University campus, and thanks to both of you. Welcome back.

Mr.�PETER ROBINSON (Research Fellow, Hoover Institution): Glad to be here.

Mr.�PAUL GLASTRIS (Editor, Washington Monthly): A pleasure.

CONAN: And let's begin with you, Paul Glastris. You've compared President Obama's situation tonight to that of another first-term president.

Mr.�GLASTRIS: Peter's old boss, Ronald Reagan. He was in the same, more or less, position in his first State of the Union in 1982, very high unemployment. He had been elected as a somewhat of a protest against a failed presidency, as Barack Obama did, passed substantial legislation in his first year that was an ideological break with the past, but was facing very high unemployment and not very high approval rating and really had a the burden of trying to explain his economic plans.

CONAN: And I wonder, Peter Robinson, do you expect do you accept the analogy of a president who came to office with transformational ambitions and had some problems in his first year?

Mr.�ROBINSON: To an extent. The distinctive difference is that when Ronald Reagan lost in 1982, he had already set in place excuse me, when the midterm elections went against him in 1982, and when he spoke in '81, and things were already sliding south, politically, he'd already enacted the tax cut. He'd already given Paul Volcker support and understanding that Volcker was free to go ahead and stomp down on the money supply and squeeze out inflation.

So Reagan stood before the chamber, believing that he had already begun to do what was necessary to address the problem. My feeling about Barack Obama, the administration, what we've seen them leak over the last couple of days, that they're going to be in favor of some small tax cuts, the spending freeze for certain discretionary domestic programs - they're scrambling. I don't feel that they believe they've already got the problem under control. There is that distinction.

Paul is correct, though, that both have to do any military analyst will tell you that one maneuver is harder than any other, and it's what Reagan had to do, it's what Clinton had to do in '95, it's what Barack Obama has to do tonight: the fighting retreat, remaining a coherent and dangerous force while at least appearing to give up ground. It's very tricky.

CONAN: Some military analysts might say an opposed amphibious invasion.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But anyway, going back to Paul Glastis, and you say that Obama is, in fact, in very similar circumstances and needs to do what Reagan did: lay down a marker.

Mr.�GLASTRIS: That's right. You know, we all remember Babe Ruth, a great home-run hitter, but the home run we remember is, you know, in the World Series against the Cubs where he pointed to center field and then hit the ball where it landed. That's what we'll remember because he said it's going there.

What Ronald Reagan did in his first State of Union is say here's my economic theory. And had it not worked, had the economy not gotten better, we would not have the term Reaganomics.

What Obama needs to do, and I think Peter's right, he needs to show some sense that the steps that he's already taken cohere in a theory, so that if the economy does turn around, and we all hope it does, then he would have laid a marker that this is a coherent, Democratic, liberal theory of how to have economic growth.

RUDIN: Paul, here's where I kind of agree with Peter that I think it's almost less Reagan and more Bill Clinton, in the sense that Bill Clinton still wanted to push his health care plan through. And just like we see with Barack Obama now, his own party seemed to be split on it. Reagan's Republicans seemed to be behind on most things, but Clinton, if you remember in early '94, when he gave his first State of the Union address, Democrats weren't sure how to respond to health care.

Mr.�GLASTRIS: Yeah, I think that's right, and I think health care really is the big thing that we're all going to be looking for. Is he going to kind of give some vague, you know, nods to I want to do health care at some point in some way at some point in the future? Or is he going to say, in words, to effect of pass the Senate bill?

If he does the latter, I think he has a shot of actually getting the Senate bill passed, and I think that will utterly change the dynamics of American politics.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email Kevin's on the line from Sioux Falls in South Dakota.

KEVIN (Caller): Yes, sir. (Technical difficulties) American people -(Technical difficulties) we can get through anything if we know what we're going up against.

CONAN: You're having trouble with your new iPad there, Kevin, but I think we get the message. Peter Robinson, does the president need to tell everybody how bad it is tonight?

Mr.�ROBINSON: Sure. I was talking just yesterday, as it happens, with former Secretary of State George Schultz, and George Schultz said that in his long life of watching politicians, he divided them into two categories; the agenda politicians or what Margaret Thatcher used to call conviction politicians; and process politicians.

Bill Clinton, I would argue, was more of a process politician. He wanted to win votes, do deals and keep the love flowing. It was easier for him to do what we now term that came into the vocabulary during his administration to triangulate.

Barack Obama strikes me as much more of a conviction politician. If he seems to surrender ground, how does he do that without communicating to the American people that somehow or other he's doing something he doesn't want to do or that he doesn't believe in?

The question for him - people will be reading him as a man, as a human being -and the question is, how does he change course, to the extent that he does, while retaining a fundamental sense of authenticity? This just I have to say, this strikes me as a moment of high drama. I don't know how he will do it.

CONAN: Paul Glastris, in a piece you wrote, you argue that Ronald Reagan, in that first State of the Union Address, had to play wonky to convince people he could do wonky. Barack Obama doesn't need to do that. He has some more rhetorical room.

Mr.�GLASTRIS: He does have a little bit more rhetorical room, and I think that, you know, Ronald Reagan did face different challenges. He had not, at that point, sold the American public on conservative economic philosophy.

He had beaten Jimmy Carter, he had gotten some things passed, some big things passed, but there was a kind of widespread sense that he was, you know, not the smartest guy in the world, not in charge of the policy - maybe unfairly. And when I talked to the speechwriter who wrote that speech, he said that the struggle was to convince the country that Ronald Reagan was on top of the policies and to explain the policies.

I think no one thinks Barack Obama doesn't understand the policies, but he does need to weave them together in a story of how things will get better if we do the follow this path.

CONAN: Let's get Alice(ph) on the line, Alice calling from Boulder, Colorado.

ALICE (Caller): Hi there.


ALICE: I think that what the president needs to do tonight is to talk to the American people about the reassure us that he's not afraid of the Republicans in the Senate anymore. He needs to let us know that if they want to filibuster, just bring it on. Just do the filibuster. So what? Do what Clinton did in the '90s and just let them shut down the government for a day or two and stop being afraid, stop running away from it, and stop prevaricating.

CONAN: Are we going to hear about, Ken Rudin, obfuscation, or are we going to hear about bipartisanship?

RUDIN: Well, that's a big dilemma in the Democratic Party, and that's exactly what both wings of the Democratic Party are talking about.

The progressives are saying we've tried to cooperate long enough, and we're getting a unified Republican opposition. It's time to push for reconciliation. Ram a 51-vote majority down their throats, not worry about 60, a filibuster-proof majority.

And there are other people like Evan Bayh who are saying look, that's exactly not what to do. Bill Clinton learned after 1994 defeats that by reaching out, by triangulating, he got both sides cooperating, and of course, he rode to re-election victory pretty easily in 1996.

CONAN: All right, Alice, thanks very much for the call. Let's go next to this is Mary(ph), Mary calling us from Leavenworth County in Kansas.

MARY (Caller): Yes, I'm hoping this time, when he gets up to make a speech, that I don't have to hear him blame the previous administration for the problems that's going on today.

He knew this when he came in to office, and it's just that when you keep blaming the previous administration, it sounds like he's passing the buck.

CONAN: Peter Robinson, are all these problems the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the economy and the unemployment numbers after a year in office, are these Barack Obama's issues now?

Mr.�ROBINSON: I have to say that George W. Bush has engaged in a kind of cruel and he's done the worst he could to Barack Obama by remaining totally out of the public eye. It is just harder to blame George W. Bush when George W. Bush isn't around. Even Dick Cheney seems to have fallen more or less silent for the past six or so weeks.

Of course not. Every president inherits decades' worth some things that presidents inherit have been set in motion decades before. Certainly, many of the problems we face now are George W. Bush's. But at this point, as a political matter, is it my sense of what the public feels at this point is, it's just not useful anymore to blame anybody else.

There's a real hunger, I believe - Paul is onto something, I think. There's a hunger for something coherent, and there's also a fear I don't believe was quite felt in - it was felt in quite the same way when Reagan spoke in '81, and again in '82. The fear is somehow the wheels are coming off the entire enterprise, here. Does the president seem to know what to do to get the economy going again? And now we have unemployment at over 10 percent. Does anybody know - there's a real disquiet. And so some sense of coherence, some sense of command, some sense that this man knows what to do - and that has nothing to do with blaming George W. Bush, in my judgment.

CONAN: Paul Glastris, the president - both Reagan and Obama - inherited difficult economic situations. And you argued that, in fact, President Reagan said this is the result of decades of misguided liberal policies...

Mr. GLASTRIS: That's absolutely right. I mean, everyone is telling - saying that Barack Obama can't blame George Bush. But Ronald Reagan did precisely that in his first State of the Union. He made without exactly blaming, right? He said: Look, we got to the point where we're at with huge unemployment and terrible circumstances because of, as you said, decades of liberal misrule. I have changed course. Here's how I changed course. We need to stay on this course. And, now, I think that's pretty much the formula that I expect Barack Obama to follow.

CONAN: Okay. Let's see if we can go next to Tom, Tom with us from Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

TOM (Caller): Good afternoon. I think that the president should urge the House to vote for the Senate health bill. And if he doesnt, it's going to appear as a tremendous loss, waste of time in this past year. And have the House vote for it, and then move on to the next - make the economy the next major issue.

CONAN: Well, Ken Rudin, is Speaker Pelosi's face going to be as red as her dress tonight?

RUDIN: Well, that's exactly it. I mean, had Speaker Pelosi not said there is no way we're going to vote for this, had House Ways and Means...

CONAN: She said, I don't have the votes for this.

RUDIN: Well, she doesn't have the votes for it, because there's so many arguments, so many dividing issues on abortion, on taxes, things like that, that they're just not even close. The House Democrats are not even united, let alone the House and Senate Democrats. So when Charlie Rangel, the chairman of Ways and Means Committee - Speaker Nancy Pelosi already laid down the marker that we're not going to vote for the Senate bill, I can't imagine Barack Obama saying tonight that they should.

CONAN: Email on this point from Shaliah(ph) in Tallahassee: I want to hear the president signal that health care reform will still happen. I don't believe the majority of Americans are against this. In fact, I believe that it's quite the contrary. This is another classic example of the media-created public hysteria and attempting to dictate legislative action. He was sent to the White House on the premise that he would change health care and sift through the mess with which he was left. I can only hope he does just that.

We're previewing the State of the Union message with former presidential speechwriters Paul Glastris and Peter Robinson. Of course, Ken Rudin, our Political Junkie is with us.

Youre listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to Tracy(ph), Tracy with us from Kingfisher in Oklahoma.

TRACY (Caller): Hi. This is my first time calling. And, you know, I just want to say that I think the president really needs to address the budget. We are out of control on the budget, trillions of dollars. Japan and China both, you know, they own this country. You know, I think the next warfare is not going to be, really, military. It's going to be economical, just like we did to Britain.

CONAN: Peter Robinson, let me ask you about that, as the tea party gets set to convene next week - well, maybe, maybe not. But, anyway, this has certainly been an issue on a lot of people's minds. There have been a lot of energy on this issue.

Mr. ROBINSON: The polling over the last couple of weeks has shown that Americans care about the economy far more than they care about health care, certainly more than they care about the cap and trade and global warming and so forth. So that seems to be a kind of existential political fact. That's what Americans are concerned about now.

I have to say, this is - if I may, Neal, just put a question to Paul to - and to Ken. It seems to me that the president, these small steps of the last couple of days, the freeze on a portion of discretionary spending - now, that's not going to be - amount to a big budget cut. But - and then, again today, in announcing that they want to eliminate capital gains from investments in small business, not a big tax cut. But I think it transforms the dynamic of the political debate.

If some - if a freeze on domestic spending is good, isn't a spending cut better? If small tax cuts are good, aren't big tax cuts better? Hasn't he just transformed the terms of the debate in a way that his own base, that the liberal members of the party will be - they'll be gnashing their teeth and wailing. Hasn't he already taken a rather large step to pivot the way in which he intends to debate before the country?

CONAN: Paul?

Mr. GASTRIS: Well, I think he will is already making liberals gnashing their teeth. They - this is not the framing they wanted. I don't think there's a slippery slope between some tax cuts and all-out Armageddon tax cuts. Bill Clinton had plenty of tax cuts for eight years and didn't - but in the end, managed to expand government spending for health care and education and the environment. So these two things are - you know, there's not a big slippery slope there.

CONAN: Ken Rudin, what do you think?

RUDIN: And also, when you see a progressive president who says that we're not going to touch defense spending, but we are going to cut Medicare and Medicaid, no matter how slight, the progressive left-of-the-wing party - well, the party would say is this what we voted for? This is more of the same that we had in previous administrations.

CONAN: Well, here's an email from Lisa on this point: Id love to hear him say, look, creating jobs will increase the deficit. You can't have your cake and eat it, too. Buck up, kids.

He plans, we're told, to go to Florida the day after the State of the Union to announce funding for high-speed rail initiatives in Florida, maybe in the Midwest, maybe in California, too. Is that the kind of thing shes talking about there, Paul?

Mr. GASTRIS: Well, in a sense, there's - he's got a trump card, and that is there's already a whole lot of money budgeted and, you know, off the table now from the stimulus and maybe from the TARP funds for things like high-speed rail, for things like education. So - and, you know, I can't quite parse this freeze. It's a little bit murky to me. Well see if...

CONAN: Discretionary spending, except for defense?

Mr. GASTRIS: Yeah. But we're going to increase on education. So this is a weird pivot, I have to say. And it's hard to see how it's going to play out.

CONAN: And Ken, as we sit here before the speech, its well to remember that we've had some leaks and there's always leaks before the State of the Union message about some elements of the program and who's going to be sitting next to the first lady on the box tonight. But nevertheless, there's some big part of this we haven't heard about yet.

RUDIN: Well, obviously, because a lot of it is tone. A lot of it is how much the administration has been rattled by, you know, last Tuesday's election in Massachusetts, which seems to be ridiculous on its face. I mean, the thought of everything that they had on their plate, all the ambitions, the Nobel Prize for expectations, and for that to just disappear because of Scott Brown, it seems kind of crazy. But I know that they're still writing up the words and the language right now.

CONAN: Our NPR's political editor Ken Rudin, with us here in Studio 3A, as he is every Wednesday, our Political Junkie. Our thanks as well to Paul Glastris, editor-in-chief now of the Washington Monthly, previously a White House speechwriter for Bill Clinton, and to Peter Robinson, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution who used to write speeches for President Ronald Reagan, with us today from a studio at the campus of Stanford University. Gentlemen, thank you all very much.

RUDIN: Youre welcome.

Mr. ROBINSON: A pleasure, as always.

Mr. GLASTRIS: Thank you.

CONAN: Up next, the State of the Union is not the only speech making big news today. Apple's Steve Jobs just unveiled a device half-an-inch thick, which weighs a pound-and-a-half and looks like a big iPhone. The debut of the iPad.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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