Fallows On The News: State Of The Union, China

From the State of the Union to a familiar diplomatic clash between the U.S. and China, host Guy Raz digs into the week's big stories with news analyst James Fallows from The Atlantic magazine.

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(Soundbite of music)

GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

And this week, the president hoped to hit the reset button.

President BARACK OBAMA: Neither party should delay or obstruct every single bill just because they can.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio; Minority Leader): There are issues and items that we do agree upon. But when they're lumped together in a 2,000-page bills, typically what we find is a lot of things that we disagree with.

RAZ: House minority leader John Boehner; and, earlier, President Obama.

James Fallows joins me here in the studio for a look at the week that was.

And, Jim, thanks for trudging through the snow here in Washington today.

Mr. JAMES FALLOWS (National Correspondent, The Atlantic Monthly): My pleasure. It's nice and brisk outside.

RAZ: And on your blog this week, Jim, you write that normally, State of the Union addresses are more like corporate annual reports than normal speeches. But you also wrote that you think this one, this past week, will actually be studied by historians closely.

Mr. FALLOWS: Well, sort of. I think State of the Union addresses usually have two impacts: one is in real times made on the main guaranteed audience the president has over TV in the course of a year, so he makes his case.

The other is, they're studied in budgetary terms, because usually you go through and you have one sentence about each department of the government. I think this one, its main effect was its consistency with other big speeches Obama has given in sort of resetting his situation, recovering from political setbacks and saying here's the way he would like to redefine whether it's the deficit argument, the partisanship argument, the health care argument or so on.

RAZ: Now, Jim, no matter what anyone might think about President Obama, it was still pretty remarkable to watch him address those House Republicans in Baltimore yesterday. He was basically going into enemy territory. Now, he took questions for 90 minutes, and it was all televised. I can't remember another example of a president doing this.

Mr. FALLOWS: Nor can I. And I think the closet counterpart is something that was not only not televised but secret for a long time, which were the transcriptions of Lyndon Johnson's telephone calls which were released a few years ago. And you could hear the same sort of playing the great organ of working on people, with emotional appeals and logical appeals and all the rest.

And, Obama, of course, was doing this in live TV with a national audience in his enemy's camp. And I think that in retrospect, I think it will be good for the nation if there are gonna be many more of these. I will be surprised if the Republican Party accepts many more of these invitations, because I think on net it was a more impressive performance for the president in trying to present his personality and his arguments than it was for the other side.

RAZ: I mean, even though presumably some of the House members there will try and use their confrontations with the president in their re-election campaigns.

Mr. FALLOWS: That's certainly so. And I think we saw in this session, this remarkable session, the built-in advantage any incumbent president always has; that he was the center of every discussion. Now, these people were asking questions from the twilight or not really on camera, he could be there calm and confidently sort of giving his answers. So it is a plus that any president has, and it is particular form that favors President Obama.

RAZ: Jim, turning on to a completely different topic. Last night, China announced that it's suspending some military exchanges with the United States because of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

This issue seems to come up every year or so, and then it seems to just blow over and pass on. Is it different this time?

Mr. FALLOWS: I think it is different in some ways. It comes up every year or every couple of years because when the U.S. normalizes relations with mainland China and changed them with Taiwan 30-plus years ago, it committed itself to a kind of ongoing arms relationship with the Taiwanese, which is a constant irritant in mainland China. And so every time this happens, there's complaint from the government in Beijing, which is barely noticed by most of the populace in the U.S. but a big deal in China.

This time it may be more because so many other things are sort of breaking in the direction of U.S./China friction right now. The Google case, of course, is only becoming more sort of embattled in China. There's issues about currency levels and trade imbalances and, of course, the Copenhagen agreements where China and the U.S. were in disagreement.

RAZ: And the U.S. is now saying it will reduce its CO2 emissions by some 17 percent over the next decade, part of this Copenhagen Accord that was discussed last month at the U.N. Climate Change Conference.

China, of course, is the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases. What's the sense? Will China sign on to this?

Mr. FALLOWS: I think in the long term, it is necessary for China to be involved in this sort of agreement, because otherwise there really isn't any hope of coping with it. In the short term, I think we'll know in basically two days whether or not China is willing to match this U.S. announcement with something of its own, because that was the period after the Copenhagen talks when all the major parties were supposed to say, okay, what are you doing next?

If they don't do that, it means another sort of long slogging round ahead.

RAZ: What are the Chinese objections?

Mr. FALLOWS: The Chinese objections are essentially that, you know, you Western powers, for 200 years you've had a free run on polluting world. And any way, you're still much richer than we are so why should we - just beginning to develop with all these peasants and poor people, why should we make these sacrifices now? That's their case.

RAZ: And, Jim, one more thing before I let you go.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

Pres. OBAMA: Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.

RAZ: Every year, Jim, I should mention, you post an annotated version of the State of the Union address. And this year, you did, as well. I was hoping you could explain what it is about that line we just heard that drives you up the wall.

Mr. FALLOWS: What drives me up the wall is that before the era of Ronald Reagan, who changed America in ways both better and worse, presidents, when they ended an address on any topic, they had to end it with an actual ending. They had to complete their thought. They had to say what they wanted people to do or change their behavior or whatever.

Abraham Lincoln did that. You can check it out. George Washington did it. Thomas Jefferson did it. Everybody did it until Ronald Reagan who began the practice of ending all of his addresses with: And God Bless the United States of America.

That's a fine sentiment. I agree with that myself. But as a way to end a speech has become the equivalent of a flag pin...

RAZ: Yeah.

Mr. FALLOWS: ...that is on your lapel. That is you have to do it otherwise you're somehow not American. So I fruitlessly and vainly lament its appearance every time it comes up.

RAZ: That's James Fallows. He's national correspondent for The Atlantic. You can read his annotated State of the Union at jamesfallow.theatlantic.com.

Jim, thanks so much, and God bless America.

Mr. FALLOWS: And God bless us, every one.

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