Obama To The Nation: 'We Do Big Things'

President Obama addressed the nation in his second State of the Union address last night. Host Michel Martin breaks down the night's themes and gets analysis of what hit the mark and what fell flat. She speaks with veteran journalists Mary Kate Cary, columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report, Dana Milbank, national political columnist for the Washington Post, and Cynthia Tucker, columnist and blogger for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Today we'll get reaction to President Obama's second State of the Union address, which he delivered last night before a new Congress. There were a lot of new faces and new seating arrangements, with many members choosing to sit with their colleagues, who usually, literally, sit across the aisle, that is, with the opposite political party.

That was part of a call for a more civil discourse in the wake of the attack on Arizona Congressman Gabrielle Giffords at a constituent meet and greet earlier this month. President Obama also touched on the civility theme early in his remarks.

President BARACK OBAMA: What comes of this moment is up to us. What comes of this moment will be determined, not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: We wanted to talk more about what the president said, how it was received, and also about the other speeches that were delivered last night. So we've called upon our regular commentators on politics, Mary Kate Cary, a columnist and blogger at U.S. News and World Report. She's also a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. Cynthia Tucker is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who writes and blogs for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. And thanks so much for joining us once again.

Ms. CYNTHIA TUCKER (Journalist, Atlanta Journal-Constitution): Glad to be here.

Ms. MARY KATE CARY (Columnist, U.S. News and World Report): Good to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: Also joining us, Dana Milbank, op-ed columnist for The Washington Post. He's also author of the book, "Tears of a Clown: Glenn Beck and the Tea Bagging of America." Dana's also getting some attention for a challenge he put out to his fellow political writers this week. Maybe he'll tell us about it a little bit later.

So, Mary Cary, I'm going to start with you because a lot of the buzz in the run-up to the speech was that the president would be making an effort to, you know, not just, as he put it, sort of symbolically reach across the aisle, but kind of meet people with very different political views, halfway. And I'll just play a short clip. This is a section of the speech where he talked about the need for the U.S. to remain competitive and to innovate.

But here's a, you know, in education and so forth like that - but here's a clip about what a lot of people thought was a very specific outreach to specific people. Here it is.

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: We have to make America the best place on earth to do business. We need to take responsibility for our deficit and reform our government. That's how our people will prosper. That's how we'll win the future.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: So, did he meet his own goal of setting a context for further cooperation across party lines?

Ms. CARY: Yeah. I think if you compare it to last year's State of the Union, the tone in that, if you recall, he went after the Supreme Court for what he saw was a pro-business Supreme Court decision. He decried greedy CEOs, selfish bankers, things like that. All of that was gone. I think a lot of it had to do with the arrival of Bill Daley at the White House, former business leader, former secretary of Commerce, Jeff Immelt, the manufacturer, head of GE, who's his new adviser on the economy.

I think there was a lot of pro-business rhetoric, it was a marked change from last year. And one thing I noticed, that just brought a smile to my face as a speechwriter is, you know, when you get an assignment like that, you've got this laundry list from the boss, what has to be in there - immigration, environment, whatever. And then you have your own list of what you want to get in there; and that's the jokes, the quotes or whatever.

And if I had been speechwriter last night, on my list would've been, get those Chilean miners in there somehow. And sure enough, he got it in. And so, I thought that was a great way to end the speech in terms of tone. You almost wanted to hear the Chilean ambassador going, Chi, Chi, Chi, le, le, le, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CARY: I just thought it was just a unifying, great way to tie it all up with a bow at the end.

MARTIN: OK. Cynthia, what do you think? Your reaction. And I'm particularly interested in how you feel the progressives are responding to this, because, as you know, they don't generally cotton well to, you know, outreaches to business. They don't feel that that is really the major challenge facing the country right now. So, what is your reaction, first of all, and secondly, how -more broadly - how do you think progressives are going to react to it?

Ms. TUCKER: Well, I thought it was a good speech. And, interestingly, I think that the arrival of Daley, out of Chicago, as chief of staff had less to do with it then the fact that the president is now forced to work with a Republican majority in the House. In an interesting twist, I think that that provides the president a perfect platform from which to run for a second term, because he's very comfortable portraying himself as the uniter, as the adult in the room who knows how to work across the aisle to reach compromise. And he had a lot of those themes in his speech last night.

Now, a lot of progressives have been unhappy with the president since the midterms, because he started to compromise with Republicans, almost immediately, and many progressives had been very unhappy about that. They were probably happy with the president because at least he mentioned not allowing tax breaks for the wealthy to stand for all time. But a lot of progressives were unhappy because he failed to mention gun control.

Ed Rendell mentioned that last night after Tucson...

MARTIN: Former governor of Pennsylvania.

Ms. TUCKER: ...wouldn't you have thought that the president would have at least taken the time to talk about these high-capacity magazine clips? He did not do not. Clearly the president wanted a more tightly focused speech. And, in fact, the most controversial thing he mentioned was immigration reform.

MARTIN: We can hear more about that in a minute, but Dana, your thoughts?

Mr. DANA MILBANK: (Columnist, The Washington Post): I thought it was a very strong speech and it capped, really, a couple of months of what's been a remarkable recovery for the president. It's hard to imagine he'd be as popular as he is now and in such a strong position, when you look back the day after the election and his shellacking. Now, you know, part of it is the economy is beginning to improve.

And part of it is that he actually is in a stronger position now. He was able to say last night, look, we can't pass anything unless the Republicans agree. And that's his message now, to the progressives. And he can say, sorry guys, you may not like it, but I have no choice here, even if that was his instinct anyway.

You know, I was struck by him throwing out, oh, let's do medical malpractice reform last night. That was just a gift to the Republicans. And, you know, it was because of the way they were sitting, it had the effect of muting the differences and it looked like everybody sort of agreed with everything, which is certainly not the case.

But I think it was also the case a lot of Democrats were confused that he gave the Republicans as much to applaud there. So he's looking to be in a very strong position, both in terms of negotiating now, in terms of actually getting some policies through, and in terms of the election.

MARTIN: Just briefly, if you would tell me about the whole, the sitting together thing. It started as an invitation from, I believe, Tom Udall. And he, and then a lot of people picked up on it. Some people thought, well, this is just symbolic. But a lot of people seemed to get into the spirit of it. In fact, we read this morning in your paper, that some people actually coordinated their outfits, which I thought was - but some people were - there were mixed reviews of this on the pundit class, because some people said, well, it actually threw the president off his game a little bit because he kind of feeds off the energy of the audience.

For me, as a television viewer, I actually found it a better viewing experience, because I think a lot of that jumping up and down and hooting and hollering makes it very hard for me to pay attention to what's being said and to follow this speech. Dana, what are your thoughts about it?

Mr. MILBANK: Right. I mean, usually you're watching, it looks like a seesaw. One side's up, then the other side's up and it's, you know, it's like football cheering. And I think it looks juvenile usually. So I think this was, you know, people criticize this as saying it's symbolic. Well, guess what? We need a little bit of good symbolism. And I think it sent a much more positive sense of the country. You look through the hope. There were women on both sides. There were people of different colors in brightly colored dresses. It just looked more like America.

MARTIN: That's Dana Milbank of The Washington Post. Also with us, Mary Kate Cary of U.S. News and World Report; and Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. We're talking about last night's State of the Union address. Briefly, ladies, what did you think about the big mix-up? Some people were calling it date night.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What did you think, Cynthia?

Ms. TUCKER: Well, if they coordinated their outfits, it's a wonder some of them didn't present their dates with corsages like prom night.

Mr. MILBANK: Well, they had those nice ribbons on there.

Ms. CARY: Yeah, that was also very unifying, you know.

Ms. TUCKER: But like Dana, I liked it. I thought the symbolism was good and I also, I didn't agree with those who said that it threw the president off his game. For me as a viewer watching at home on television, it was a much more -the decorum was better. And so I think it did present Americans something that they were quite comfortable with.

MARTIN: Mary Kate?

Ms. CARY: Yeah, I'll be surprised if they go back to the old way, at least in the near future. I bet for the next few years they'll keep it.

MARTIN: You know, she's our eternal optimist, you know. I love that about her.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I love that about her.

But, you know, speaking of an issue in which there was a lot of disagreement, immigration, Dana pointed out, this is one these sort of almost like a Rorschach test. While there have been a number of Republicans like John McCain who've shown leadership on immigration issues, that just is one of those sort of deeply polarizing emotional issues.

This is what the president had to say about that last night. Here it is.

Pres. OBAMA: Now, I strongly believe that we should take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration. And I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows.

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: I know that debate will be difficult. I know it will take time. But tonight, let's agree to make that effort.

MARTIN: OK, eternal optimist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Do you think he persuaded anyone on this? I think his reference, specifically, was to the Dream Act, which failed in the last - 'cause one of the few things he was not able to accomplish, that offered a path to citizenship for some young undocumented immigrants who came here with their parents as children and they had to meet certain conditions to open up a path to citizenship.

So, in the minute we have left for now, Mary Kate, what do you think? Is there any prospect for moving the ball on this?

Ms. CARY: I think so because he didn't use the buzz word, comprehensive immigration reform, which sets off bells with some Republicans. He talked about border security. He talked about enforcing the laws we have. Elsewhere in the speech he talked about allowing students, now, he didn't say how young, but from the context, it was grad students, people in high tech areas, to stay in the United States.

And the GOP is trying to move away from this anti-anchor baby debate and moving towards a debate on immigration that's pro innovation, pro entrepreneur. And that feeds into - that's common ground that the Republicans want to hear, is keeping the brain drain from happening. And that's where I think the Republican immigration policy wants to

MARTIN: They are moving towards this debate?

Ms. CARY: Marco Rubio talks a lot about that.

MARTIN: New senator from Florida.

Ms. CARY: Right. And that's sort of the new pro immigrant way to go about immigration policy and get away from anti-immigrant.

MARTIN: Briefly, Cynthia. Common ground possible?

Ms. TUCKER: No. I don't share Mary Kate's optimism about this at all. This is not going anywhere with the Republican base. I don't care if the Dream Act that was - came up in the lame-duck Congress was a perfect opportunity for those Republicans who were interested in this - in keeping only high performing citizens in the country, those who had gone to the military, gone to Congress -it failed. Even some of its prior sponsors wouldn't vote for it, including John McCain. So, no, I don't think it's going anywhere.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break. But when we come back, we'll continue this conversation with Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. That's who you just heard. Mary Kate Cary of U.S. News and World Report. And Dana Milbank of The Washington Post. And we'll hear about why he's taking a vow of silence on mentioning one person, one high-profile political character in particular. We'll see if we can squeeze it out of him.

That is next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we mentioned earlier that the mood at the State of the Union last night was certainly informed by the continuing sadness over the attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson earlier this month. Unfortunately there's been another disturbing series of attacks that we feel we should tell you about. There's been a wave of shootings targeting police, and we're going to talk about that in just a few minutes.

But first, a return to our conversation about the State of the Union speech last night and the two responses from the loyal opposition. With me are Cynthia Tucker, a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Mary Kate Cary, she's a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. She's also served as a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. Also with us Washington Post op-ed columnist Dana Milbank. He's also author of the book, "Tears of a Clown: Glenn Beck and the Tea Bagging of America."

Before the break we were talking about some of the issues President Obama highlighted in his State of the Union address last night. We kind of skipped a little bit past education. We've talked a lot about that on the program. And we talked about immigration reform, his call for more cooperative legislative atmosphere in Washington.

Now, it seems that the Republicans and their official response took up the same challenge. I just want to play a short clip from Paul Ryan. He is a Republican, obviously. He's from Wisconsin. He's the chair of the House budget committee, and he was selected to deliver the official Republican response. This is a little bit of what he had to say.

Representative PAUL RYAN (Republican, Wisconsin): It's no coincidence that trust in government is at an all-time low, now that the size of government is at an all-time high. The president and the Democratic leadership have shown, by their actions, that they believe government needs to increase its size and its reach, it's price tag and its power.

MARTIN: So, Cynthia, I'm going to ask you this question, since, you know, part of the effectiveness, I think, of a speech by the opposition is to reach out to people who were not already in agreement. Do you think he was successful?

Ms. TUCKER: I think he was more successful than previous Republicans who've been asked to respond to the State of the Union speech. However, I have to say that I think his speech suffered from a lack of optimism. It sounded as if he's forecasting a period of managing decline. And I just don't think that that's what most Americans wanted to hear.

Contrast that with President Obama's speech, which was sunny and optimistic, and quite frankly, talked about implicitly, American exceptionalism - that we can meet any challenge.

MARTIN: What do you think, Mary Kate?

Ms. CARY: I thought it was very effective. I thought he was conciliatory, but he got the points across. I think he's saying stuff people need to hear. I think we are at a tipping point. And I thought he came across, though, as a concerned parent, not as some kind of bomb thrower, you know?

MARTIN: What do you think about Cynthia's point that it wasn't optimistic enough? That it was kind of managing decline, as opposed to saying that

Ms. TUCKER: Well, I had the opposite. I thought that Obama was a little too optimistic. I thought he wasn't - he didn't - if he had addressed the deficit and still been optimistic, but the fact that he didn't address the deficit was almost like you could hear the old Democratic song, happy days are here again playing in the background. It was just a little too much. I sort of thought, he's not really getting it.

MARTIN: Dana, what do you think?

Mr. MILBANK: Well, I mean, it's not just their styles. There's a real disagreement there. There's no disputing that there is a huge problem with the nation's debt. And, I mean, we can, you know, optimism in politics is always the stronger emotion, but we can't ignore this away. I mean, Paul Ryan was right.

MARTIN: Effective, though? An effective message, you think?

Mr. MILBANK: I think he was. These speeches are always, you know, these - the opposition speech is always forgotten.

MARTIN: Well, no, it's not forgotten if it's terrible.

Ms. CARY: Bobby Jindal.

MARTIN: It's not forgotten if it's terrible.

Mr. MILBANK: That's true. Bobby Jindal will never be president because of that speech.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, I don't know. Well, we'll see. Here's - that wasn't the only speech last night. This is one of the more interesting, I think, kind of side stories about this. Maybe it wasn't even a side story, that Michele Bachmann, who - a congresswoman from Minnesota, who heads and founded the Tea Party Caucus, was asked, or she says was asked to give an official Tea Party response. And I'll just play a short clip of that.

Representative MICHELE BACHMANN (Republican, Minnesota): Instead of a leaner, smarter government, we bought a bureaucracy that now tells us which light bulbs to buy and which may put 16,500 IRS agents in charge of policing President Obama's health care bill.

MARTIN: Now, Dana, you've written - writing about Michele Bachmann some. What's your response to that? You said it had all the altitude of a punch to the gut.

Mr. MILBANK: Yeah. I mean we were saying how Paul Ryan was effective. Well, Michele Bachmann was basically making the same points. But she did it in this very angry, aggressive way - four times railing against ObamaCare. You know, both Obama and Paul Ryan had - saying, look, we need to work together, reach out to the other side. And she was saying, well, heck with that, we just got to, you know, fight like cats and dogs.

And this guy is, you know, I mean, she did everything but, you know, call him a socialist again. So I think that she has an audience and a constituency for that, but that's certainly not what the Republicans wanted to hear last night. And going forward, they need to find a way to reign in the Michele Bachmanns. And I see no way that they can do that because her power base is not here in Washington.

MARTIN: You know what's interesting is that even criticism of the media, some -you know, CNN in particular because - well, Fox News, of course, was going to carry it, of course - but for CNN for carrying it because one of their on-air correspondents said that some people think we shouldn't be carrying this because they feel that this is just, you know, propaganda or shows division in the Republican caucus and so forth.

And I will say, I think there was a real difference between whether you heard the speech or whether you saw it, because her delivery, if you just heard it, I think it was, you know, a typical speech. If you saw it, it was really amateur hour.

Ms. CARY: Right.

MARTIN: Anyway.

Ms. CARY: Big contrast between the two.

MARTIN: Mary Kate?

Ms. CARY: And I think, on one hand, more charts and graphs, you know, it's just more information and maybe that's a good thing. But on the other hand, her delivery wasn't as good, her tone wasn't as good. Like you were saying, the visual is sort of amateur hour. And I think he's becoming the new face of the Republican Party. And she's getting a little more marginalized.

MARTIN: Cynthia, what do you think?

Ms. TUCKER: That is certainly what Republicans hope, that Paul Ryan is becoming the face of the Republican Party and that they can keep the Tea Party caucus, as it were, marginalized. But that remains to be seen. They certainly want to keep the focus on people who are more mainstream. But Michele Bachmann is not going to let that happen. She is determined to be heard from, to be seen. She's even making noises about a presidential run.

MARTIN: Speaking of someone who's determined to be seen and making noises about a presidential run, Dana Milbank recently wrote a piece saying that he is swearing off writing about one high-profile political figure. She whose name will not pass his lips. Now, I'm trying to figure out

Ms. CARY: Two syllables, rhymes with

MARTIN: Rhymes with from Alaska. And I'm trying to figure out how we're going to talk about this without causing you to break your pledge, which is not really our secret mission here.

Mr. MILBANK: It's OK, Michel. I said for the month of February. So I can still say it. Sarah Palin. Sarah Palin. Sarah Palin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILBANK: The question is, what do I do

MARTIN: So it's the month of February. OK, great.

Mr. MILBANK: Exactly.

MARTIN: So we're riding under the wire.

Mr. MILBANK: What do I do on February 1st? That's the point at which I have to switch to Michele Bachmann.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: OK. Well, why did you - and you're calling on your fellow political writers to also take the pledge. Tell us why.

Mr. MILBANK: I call on your three ladies, today, to join in. I want to hear a commitment, right here, not to say Sarah Palin for the month of February.

MARTIN: OK. How come?

Mr. MILBANK: You know what? Look, we give her more attention, as a former vice presidential candidate, than the actual vice president. We're addicted to her. In a very real way I think people believe it drives readers, viewers, listeners. We love the conflict. You know, she's a bomb thrower and we in the media love that. But I'm suggesting that there are more important things that we need to do.

But that said, February is the shortest month of the year. So I'm not putting too large an investment (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That's right. No (unintelligible). All right, very quickly, are you taking the pledge, Mary Kate?

Ms. CARY: All right, I'll take the pledge.

MARTIN: All right, let's see, Cynthia, are you taking the pledge?

Ms. TUCKER: No way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CARY: My editor might

Ms. TUCKER: Sarah Palin is much too much fun. Although I would

MARTIN: She's sending your baby to college, huh?

Ms. TUCKER: You know, I would have to agree that as low as her poll numbers are at the moment, we have less and less excuse to take her seriously.

MARTIN: Cynthia Tucker is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who writes and blogs for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio, along with Mary Kate Cary, columnist and blogger at U.S. News and World Report. She's also a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. Dana Milbank is an op-ed columnist for The Washington Post. He's also author of the book, "Tears of a Clown: Glenn Beck and the Tea Bagging of America." Thank you all so much for joining us.

Ms. CARY: Thanks for having us.

Ms. TUCKER: Thanks, Michel.

Mr. MILBANK: Thanks, Michel.

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