Diverse Panel Reacts To State Of The Union Address

President Obama delivered his first State of the Union Wednesday. Host Michel Martin talks with a diverse panel of journalists for reaction and analysis of the speech. Joining the conversation are Senior Political Analyst for BET Pamela Gentry, Democratic strategist and former deputy campaign manager for the Obama campaign Steve Hildebrand and syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Im Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

As you certainly know by now, President Barack Obama delivered his first State of the Union address last night, and we will bring you a range of reactions to the speech. Well talk to a panel of our regular contributors for analysis. Well hear from one woman whose family has been deeply affected by the recession for her take on Mr. Obamas plan to create jobs sounds to her. And well hear the very personal reaction of one man, a military man, whos affected by Mr. Obamas promise to work to repeal the militarys Dont Ask Dont Tell policy.

But well start with syndicated columnist and regular TELL ME MORE contributor Ruben Navarrette, senior political analyst for BET, Black Entertainment Television, Pam Gentry, and Democratic strategist and deputy campaign manager for the Obama campaign Steve Hildebrand. Theyre all here with us. Welcome to you all. Thank you. Welcome back, I should say.

Ms. PAM GENTRY (Senior Political Analyst, Black Entertainment Television): Its a pleasure.

Mr. RUBEN NAVARRETTE (Columnist, San Diego Tribune): Thanks.

Mr. STEVE HILDEBRAND (Democratic Political Strategist; Deputy Campaign Manager, Obama Campaign): Thank you.

MARTIN: Let me start with you, Pam. The president received a loud and enthusiastic reception from his Democratic colleagues, but as weve all talked about that many of these colleagues have not been showing him a lot of love on many of his policy priorities lately. And heres a clip of the president chiding both parties for being intransigent. Here it is.

President BARACK OBAMA: The Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills.

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, a supermajority, then the responsibility of the government is now yours as well.

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but its not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens not our ambitions.

MARTIN: So, Pam, how do you interpret this statement, particularly putting it in the context of a larger speech? What was the president trying to say?

Ms. GENTRY: I think he was not blame shifting as much as he was saying that were both responsible for doing the job that we were sent here to do. But it does put the Republicans in a defensive situation now. Ive heard interviews already this morning where theyre coming out saying: were not just saying no, were just saying no to this particular, you know, part of his plan or part of this. And were trying to work with him.

Were not - and thats a different tone. I havent quite heard that tone before. But I dont think some Democrats liked it. In particular, I got a couple of emails, very quickly that, you know, they dont already agree. Theyre upset with him for talking about a freeze. So...

MARTIN: A spending freeze.

Ms. GENTRY: A spending freeze. So even though he was chiding all of them last night, I dont think that he probably made headway with any of them.

MARTIN: Really? Steve Hildebrand, what do you think?

Mr. HILDEBRAND: Well, I think, you know, the number 60 in the Senate, the partisanship, all of that needs to be reduced. And its, you know, the onus is on the president and the members of the House and Senate to do that. These people were sent there to solve problems. And if they dont start solving problems, our country is going to be even worse off than it already is.

This is not about Democrats or Republicans, its about showing leadership. The president said that. But the American people need to start demanding it in a much more serious way.

MARTIN: I want to hear more from you about what you think that means. But Im going to hear from Ruben first. Ruben, your sense of this speech, whats your sense of the overall tone...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: What was the president trying to accomplish? Did he do what he set out to do?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right. I think he did. The overall tone was defiant. It was -listen, notwithstanding my defeats, my partys defeats in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts, I do not give up. I will not give up on this agenda. I think that obviously after the Massachusetts election, the big question was whether or not Obama would hedge his bets, pull back on some of his agenda items, including health care reform or whether he would double down.

And you were actually getting signals up from the White House in both regards. There were mixed messages coming out about going either way. And you could really make the case, even if youre not a supporter of Barack Obama that you could go either way. That there was wisdom in either way. And he actually doubled down. He actually just came out doubled down and said, listen, you know, I want you to get back to work. Were going to solve these problems, sort of accentuating what he had said last week in an interview about how he would be okay with being a one-term president. He wasnt going to walk away from some of these problems.

So, overall, I may disagree with the president on a lot of what he said last night in terms of policy - cap in trade, health care reform, other things - but I was very impressed by his tone. I like it when a president in either party just doubles down and says, you know what, Im not going to back down. Im not going to change my view on this. If you dont like it vote me out.

MARTIN: And lets talk about the key priority the president identified early in the speech, the whole question of the economy, and particularly job creation. Steve, Im going to go to you first. But first, Im going to play a short clip of the president addressing this whole question of where he thinks Americans are, and how they are feeling right now. Here it is.

Pres. OBAMA: From the day I took office, Ive been told that addressing our larger challenges is too ambitious. Such an effort would be too contentious. Ive been told that our political system is too gridlocked and that we should just put things on hold for a while. For those who make these claims, I have one simple question - how long should we wait? How long should America put its future on hold?

MARTIN: Steve, what do you think about that? I mean, were going to drill down a little later in the program on some of the sort of the policy initiatives that he suggested per se. But do you think that the president did a good job of sort of telling the American people that he understands the problem and that he has a plan?

Mr. HILDEBRAND: I do. I think its long overdue that Washington gets some of these problems addressed. There is no time to waste. You know, people are still getting laid off. People are still feeling very uncertain with their lives, with their health care, with their jobs, you know, worried about whether or not they can pay their home-heating bills in winters like this.

Theres a lot of big concerns that regular people have and, you know, the presidents right, there is no time to waste. And these folks need to get to work and really solve some problems.

MARTIN: But, you know, Steve, one of the things that Im interested in your perspective on is that a lot of the conservative and Republican commentators and lawmakers in recent days have been saying that the president misread his mandate, and that he is overreaching in policy and ideology because most of the public or at least half of the public or at least a good consensus of the public just doesnt agree with him.

Are you surprised, Steve, that at this point given the concerns that the country has that the president even has to make a speech like that? Because he seems to be making the case that you have to solve problems. I thought that that was a settled issue and a lot of people are saying its not.

Mr. HILDEBRAND: I think that, Michel, one of the mistakes that I think this president has made, this administration has made is that they didnt do a good enough job of selling their health care plan. They didnt do a good enough job of selling the stimulus plan to the American people.

I think that large majorities of voters in this country believe in the presidents health care reform agenda. But they dont know enough details about it and so it confuses them. It scares them. People are always nervous around change, and this presidents got a great ability to communicate to the American people. And if he would spend more time selling what he is proposing, Im fairly convinced he will have the strong backing of the American people to do so and that Congress would be put in a much more difficult position to actually solve the health care crisis. I think the same with jobs. I think the same with, you know, the overall economy, why we had to do the bank bailout, you know, those kinds of things.

I just dont think theyve - I think theyve been in such a hurry to try and solve problems and deal with, you know, the nightmare that has existed in this country that they havent had the time and taken the time to go out and sell the American people on what theyre actually trying to do.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Were talking about the presidents State of the Union, his first State of the Union address. Joining us our Democratic strategist Steve Hildebrand, journalist Pam Gentry, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette.

Pam, what about the presidents answer to this argument that youre doing too much? Do you think it was persuasive?

Ms. GENTRY: I think near the end of his speech, he went into this - his discussion about why I ran for office. I said I was going to make changes. I didnt say I could do all of these changes by myself. I need, you know, I need cooperation, I need, you know, you, the American people, to understand. And I think he made a persuasive argument about the policies that hes been most passionate about. But I dont think that maybe hes been consistent the entire time so that the American people were growing along with him.

But I do think that last night he stepped up to the plate to say, you know, he admitted, he said I take full responsibility for some of the things that I may have not done or explained to you effectively. But Im, you know, but Im making amends in a sense.

MARTIN: Do you find it odd that health care came up so late in the speech?

Ms. GENTRY: No, I dont. Because I knew that jobs is going to be number one. I mean, its all week at the White House press briefing. So it was very clear that they were refocusing their direction in the State of the Union. This was going to be jobs, jobs, jobs.

MARTIN: And, Ruben, finally before we take a break, I just want to play one more clip from the presidents speech. He was, several times in the speech, critical of a Washington establishment as you often are. And I just want to play a short clip of what the president had to say.

Pres. BARACK OBAMA: We have to recognize that we face more than a deficit of dollars right now. We face a deficit of trust, deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years. To close that credibility gap, we have to take action on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue -to end the outside influence of lobbyists, to do our work openly, to give our people the government they deserve.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: Now, Ruben, I know that you share the presidents view of the illness, but do you buy the cure?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah. I do not. I think this was probably the weakest part of his speech. Hes least believable when he starts railing against Washington as if he just sort of landed here from Illinois yesterday. He is as much a creature of Washington at this point as anyone else, even though he was in the Senate for a very short time. Him challenging the establishment is not something he does effectively because, you know, whether hes mocking somebody for driving a pickup truck or whatever, he always comes off as part of the establishment that hes mocking.

I do think that were misreading a lot of what were seeing with Obama. I dont think its a question of him trying to do too much, its a question of the stuff that he is trying to do a lot of Americans just dont like. And he thinks because he gets out every once in a while and visits a factory in Allentown or something, if there are factories left in Allentown, God forbid. I think that there are real questions about whether or not he and his advisers in the White House are really as tone deaf as they seem because the messages from outside the Beltway dont seem to be permeating the White House.

MARTIN: And, Steve, I want to hear from you just briefly before we have to take a short break. Whats your reaction to that? Ruben says its not that hes doing too much, its what hes trying to do. What do you say?

Mr. HILDEBRAND: Well, I think its important to recognize that President Obama has offered and implemented more reforms in government than any president has in the last 30 years. There is a record there and I think it should be recognized because it is an accomplishment for his administration in the first year, and its a promise that he made to the American people.

Has it been enough? I dont think so. But I also think Congress needs to reform itself. The Supreme Court just came out with this ruling and said corporations and the wealthy can spend unlimited amounts of money for or against a candidate for federal office. Well, thats pretty scary and Congress has to deal with that. We need campaign finance reform in a serious way. The American people need to have representation, not just corporations.

MARTIN: Steve, we need to take a short break, but well come right back to you when we come back. Our panel analyzing the presidents State of the Union address: Steve Hildebrand, Pam Gentry, Ruben Navarrette.

Im Michel Martin. Youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Please stay with us.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Im Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, what does the last nights presidential address mean for your wallet. Well speak with our regular contributor Alvin Hall about the presidents proposals to help the struggling middle class. Well ask, how that sounds to a woman whose family has been hit hard by the recession? Thats in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to continue our conversation about last nights address with our group of panelists: Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist and regular TELL ME MORE contributor. Pam Gentry is a senior political analyst for BET, Black Entertainment Television. And Steve Hildebrand is a Democratic strategist and former deputy campaign manager of the Obama presidential campaign.

Pam, I just want to play a short clip of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. He was just sworn in. Hes one of the GOPs big successes in this last election cycle. He was (unintelligible) to give the Republican response. Thats become a recent new tradition. Here is what he had to say.

Governor BOB McDONNELL (Republican, Virginia): Many Americans are concerned about this administrations efforts to exert greater control over car companies, banks, energy and health care. But over-regulating employers wont create more employment, overtaxing investors wont foster more investment. Top-down, one-size-fits-all decision making should not replace the personal choices of free people in a free market, nor undermine the proper role of state and local governments in our system of federalism.

MARTIN: Steve, Im going to ask you to put your strategist head on for us in telling what was Bob McDonnell trying to accomplish with his speech, and do you think he accomplished it?

Mr. HILDEBRAND: Lets come back to the same old Republican line that weve been hearing for decades, which is basically, you know, government regulation is not good public policy. That over spending is not good public policy. The Democrats are (unintelligible) liberals. You know, I think its pretty critically important to take these issues in a little bit more serious way than the governor did.

You know, give us an alternative to bailing out the banks and saving the financial institutions in this country. We would have been in a disaster if we not have done that. It was important to do. It wasnt pleasant for anybody to do or accept, but it had to be done. The car companies, in the same way, Im all about bipartisanship, but the Republicans need to start off for instant solutions.

MARTIN: Ruben, what about you? Whats your reaction? What do you think Bob McDonnell was trying to accomplish and do you think he succeeded? I do want to mention, I think, we all agree that the optics as it were...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: ...a lot better than they were last year when Bobby Jindal was kind of...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: You betcha.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I dont know, looking at...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: According to a great American, you betcha.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...like a human dart board and I think the idea of giving the speech in a group full of people and getting the same benefit of...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right, mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...the audience reaction that the president...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...I think clearly from an atmospheric standpoint was more successful. Ruben, your reaction?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Well, the play on the play with his sons, the 18-year-old twin sons in front row and him saying, I got to wrap up in 10 minutes, so they can go and watch Sports Center. You know, these - hes likable. It was nicely done in that regard. And youre still right on it, Michel, he was trying to say, I am not Bobby Jindal. Im not the Louisiana governor, who came up here and flub this, you know, and almost torpedo or maybe did torpedo his long term presidential ambitions through a bad speech.

He tried to bring home sort of what you would you expect governors to say. They always talk about the role. Of course, governors are going to talk about the role of state governments. And stress local control and all that against federal mandates. But, you know, I thought it was a weak speech in the sense that hes talking about generalities and using soundbites.

And, again, it doesnt really get to the bigger questions. If youre in favor of local control, youre against no child left behind or Arne Duncans version Race to the Top. But how do you go to the next step? How do you improve student performance if youre in favor of local control? So, God bless the governors. Its great that we have 50 of them. But, you know, they serve their role, and theres a reason why they dont go to Washington to become president as often as all get out.

MARTIN: Pam, just a brief thought from you before we wrap up.

Ms. GENTRY: I just basically - Virginia obviously is the state of responses. Weve had three Virginia governors in the last five years. And my only problem with this last one is that he was just too new, 11 day - you know, hes only been in office a very short time. He hasnt done a Virginia budget yet. So, I dont know how much, you know, I dont know what experience he stood up on to even give that speech. So, again a weak speech, but I dont think its (unintelligible).

MARTIN: He won a purple state.

Ms. GENTRY: Thats fine, thats fine. I dont have - I can see where that works, but I dont see, again, in comparison to Bobby Jindal last year, I think that, you know, he probably hit it out at the ballpark. But I just dont see what was up with him enough to make a difference.

MARTIN: It was a nice touch though highlighting also his daughter who just returned from service in Iraq. I think that was also - and I so final thought I wanted to ask. Pam, Im going to start with you.

Where does the president go from here? You know, youve talked about the fact that he was trying to address a number of deficiencies that people had identified in his performance over the course of the year, sort of jumping from issue to issue or taking on too much and trying to give sort of some coherence to that. And also, as Ruben pointed out, make the case and say that hes not withdrawing on his priorities. What do you think he does from here?

Ms. GENTRY: Well, I think he sticks to those priorities and doesnt lose focus, which are, you know, he said its been health care, its going to be jobs, its going to be energy. I mean, he stays on script. But I think more importantly, and he also now has to make sure that he can round up his Democratic colleagues and get them all on one page. And then, he can start that last, but most probably most difficult is task is trying to will some bipartisan support. But hes got to get the Democrats all on onboard.

MARTIN: Steve Hildebrand, youre a Democratic strategist, so where does the president go from here? He literally goes to Tampa, Florida, thats where he physically goes today. Where does he go from here to sort of consolidate whatever successes he had last night?

Mr. HILDEBRAND: Well, I think that the stronger leadership that he provides, the greater chance hes going to have of Democratic members of the House and Senate, getting behind his proposals in a more uniform way. I also believe that he needs to exert a lot of pressure on Republicans to step up to the plate and either support his agenda or offer real compromise. You know, something that doesnt torpedo the agenda, but actually solves some problems. And I think if he does get out there and plays a much stronger offensive role, he will be in a great position to get things done.

MARTIN: And, Ruben, Im going to give you the final word. Im going to ask you the same: where do the Republicans and Democrats and the president go from here, since youre a kind of an out loud and proud independent?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: So, what I mean, asking you to assess on both sides which they strive doing.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right. Yeah, Michel, independents are not supposed to mean you tick off everybody in one soundbite. I think the...

MARTIN: True.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah, I think Democrats - I think that Obama, for instance, President Obama has to reach out to Republicans on various issues. If youre paying attention, you see Democrats roll their eyes and (unintelligible) on their hands when he talked about expanding trade deals because labor doesnt like that, about improving education because teachers unions dont like that, cutting spending as was mentioned before because, you know, a lot of Democrats dont like that.

So, hes going to lose and he has lost a lot of support among his own party. I mean, he has to go out and reach out to Republicans more often. Issues like immigration allow him to do that because hes going to get Republican support. People like Lindsey Graham and others are Republicans, wanted to take that on and work with the president. So, those are good opportunities for him.

The Republicans, on the other hand, really have to get beyond, you know, this notion somehow that theyre opposed to everything. What are you in favor of? Explain what youre in favor of? Work with the president, work with members of Congress. Maybe there is a middle ground there. They have ideas for health care reform, for immigration reform. They happen just to be different ideas. You know, they recognize the problems. They have different ideas about how to solve them. So, there needs to be a lot more, I think, reaching across the aisle. And I think thats the tone that needs to be set. It was set last night, hopefully Congress will follow through.

MARTIN: Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist and regular TELL ME MORE contributor. You can hear him on Fridays in our Barbershop segment. He joined us from KOGO in San Diego. Pamela Gentry is the senior political analyst for BET, Black Entertainment Television. She was kind enough to drop by our Washington, D.C. studios. And Steve Hildebrand is a Democratic strategist and deputy campaign manager for the Obama campaign. He was kind enough to join us from South Dakota Public Radio in Sioux Falls. I thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Ms. GENTRY: Its a pleasure.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Thank you.

Mr. HILDEBRAND: Thank you.

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