White House Talks Income Gap: New Ideas About Old Problems?

President Obama's economic speaking tour seems reminiscent of campaign speeches in 2008. Guest host Celeste Headlee asks NPR's Ron Elving why the White House is sending this message again.

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CELESTE HEADLEE: And we turn now to NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. He directs NPR's coverage of national politics and the nation's capital. Ron, welcome back.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Celeste.

HEADLEE: You know, I agree that bipartisanship is important, as Cecilia Munoz of the White House just said. But I have a hard time swallowing her rosy picture of the fact that all of the legislators are working toward a common goal. I mean, how realistic is her picture there of bipartisan efforts to support the middle class?

ELVING: There is a consensus around the issue of student loans. (Laughing) She's right that they're working towards a hybrid solution there that incorporates what the House Republicans think, what the president thinks, what the Senate thinks. And that's apparently going to get into law, and what they all think is that they don't want to see student loan rates double. And they don't want to see all the students suddenly paying a lot more money and blaming them. That's about as far as the real bipartisan...

HEADLEE: ...That's low-hanging fruit...

ELVING: Yeah, I'm afraid it's about as low-hanging as fruit can be, except there are a couple of other things that they do have broad agreement about. And we did see an extraordinary vote yesterday afternoon in the House, where the issue was whether or not the National Security Agency should continue gathering all the data that we've learned they gather in terms of the people that we call. We don't necessarily think they're listening in on the content of the calls, but they are finding out whom we call and when and that sort of thing and e-mails as well, and that has been a high controversy this summer.

And there was a close vote in the House in which many of the most conservative Republicans and the most liberal Democrats - if you will, the people who represent the two wings of the parties - came together and nearly had enough votes to tell the NSA to stop doing this.

Now that's just a vote in the House, but we don't usually see that kind of configuration. It is possible to see cooperation between the extremes, even in the House. But by and large, the general concepts of where the United States government should be going between these two parties could not be further apart.

HEADLEE: Well, let's get some specifics here. Cecilia wouldn't give us any, but let's you and I talk about them. For example, Elizabeth Warren's attempt to get something like Glass-Steagall reimplemented to separate out the businesses that banks can engage in. Any chance?

ELVING: Yeah, no chance in the House, where people feel that there's way too much regulation of the banks as it is or of business in general. Generally speaking, the Republicans in the Senate feel the same way. There might be some sentiment in the Senate to go back to Glass-Steagall. I'm sure you could get a certain number of Democratic votes for that. But these are not the priorities of the Republicans in Congress, and the Republicans have the majority in the House and look likely to hold that majority in 2014, 2016, 2018, until we get some new districts drawn after the next census.

HEADLEE: And in fact, we recently got a statement from some pretty high-ranking Republicans that they were planning to let the government shut down if Obama doesn't defund the Affordable Care Act.

ELVING: Right, of course. So here's the centerpiece, if you will, of the first Obama term, the passage of the Affordable Care Act - Obamacare. And the Republicans are insisting that it not go forward, that it be repealed. They voted almost 40 times to repeal it, or, in some sense, dismantle it. And while that's not going to happen and the Senate's not going to go along with them on that and the president certainly would never go along on it, they are looking for every way they can to keep that issue foremost and to continually tell people maybe that Obamacare isn't really going to happen.

Or trying to, in a sense, undermine the sense of Obamacare being inevitable or even being the law, and they're being fairly successful at that. Polls show a lot of people are totally confused now about whether or not Obamacare is, in fact, taking effect or when it's taking effect or how it affects them. And they're going to now bring that issue back as part of the general economic budget showdown that we seem to have every year between the president and the Congress.

This year, it's going to focus on the October 1st beginning of the fiscal year, and the adoption of a - it's not really a budget, it's just a kind of a stopgap budget they adopt every year called a continuing resolution to keep things going. And when we get to that date, some of the Republicans in the Senate are saying they want to absolutely balk at any continuation of the government until the president agrees to defund Obamacare, which of course is...

HEADLEE: Which is not going to happen.

ELVING: ...Not going to happen.

HEADLEE: All right, so is this, as the president describes, a bold new day in economic policy for the U.S., or as the GOP says, have we heard it all before?

ELVING: Well, I think both, in a sense, can be correct in the sense that the president wants it to be one thing and the Republicans want it to be something else, and that confrontation is going to continue. But what's going on here is that everyone is trying to set the stage to their own political advantage. The president is trying to cast the Republicans as obstructionists who don't want his vision to go forward, and what he's laying out here in this series of speeches is really a kind of candidate's vision, really.

It harks back to the guy he was when he was first running for president - big, broad strokes about economic opportunity and what we need to do in the future in technology and education. And at the same time, the Republicans are saying, yeah, well, right now, we've got a big piece of the government and we don't share your vision, so we'd like to go in a different direction entirely.

HEADLEE: No surprise, I guess. Ron Elving is NPR's senior Washington editor. He joined us right here in our Washington studios. As always, Ron, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Celeste.

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