Preview: State of the Union Address

Renee Montagne talks to Senior Correspondent Juan Williams about some of the topics the president is expected to talk about in next week's State of the Union address.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

We're going to look ahead now to the State of the Union speech. NPR's senior correspondent, Juan Williams, has been talking with White House officials about the president's agenda this year, and he joins me now. Good morning, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Last year the State of The Union was all about Social Security overhaul. It was a big initiative and it went nowhere, what's the focus this year?

WILLIAMS: Well, the president's primary task will be to show fellow Republicans that he's capable of helping GOP candidates win in the mid-term elections. In general, Renee, he wants to prevent the splintering among Republicans that started toward the end of last year, when he lost some GOP support on bills to ban torture, to open oil drilling in the Artic National Wildlife refuge. The political capital he bragged about after winning re-election is now at low ebb, along with his poll numbers. So, he wants to make it clear, he still has the power to set the national agenda. And to that end, he will talk about things that are certain to rally the Republican base. He'll advance the theme set out last week by Karl Rove, his political advisor, that he is the face of a party dedicated to an all-out fight against terrorism.

He'll claim authority to conduct wiretaps of suspected terrorist communications in the U.S. and overseas without warrants. The president will also call for renewal of the Patriot Act. He'll make the case that progress is being made in the war in Iraq as part of his freedom agenda, spreading democracy through the Middle East. Other things we're likely to hear about include health insurance, energy, and illegal immigration.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's go through some of those issues you've just mentioned. The president, you say, is expected to talk about health insurance?

WILLIAMS: Well, that's right, a key theme will be having people own their health care plans. He'll say that will create portable health care, allowing Americans to keep their insurance plans as they change jobs. The president will talk about increasing health savings accounts, which allow employees to put money aside tax free for medical expenses in exchange for paying a higher deductible on their medical insurance. He'll also suggest making it harder for patients to file malpractice suits, an area he sees driving up medical costs.

MONTAGNE: Juan, after failing to privatize social security, why is the president proposing private health accounts?

WILLIAMS: Well, Renee, big business is a major constituency for this administration, and they have a stake in getting health insurance costs off their plate. Also, most Americans see a health care crisis according to the polls. That wasn't the case with social security. Overall, though, don't look for a laundry list of ideas in this speech. The president's focus is going to be on broad visions. He'll talk about America as a nation in transformation, trying to meet new economic challenges.

He'll talk about the jobs created over the last few years by a strong economy. But he'll also say that there's a need for American workers to better prepare now for global competition. In that spirit, he'll call for also extended tax cuts, and reducing the size of government. He'll trumpet rising test scores, tying it to no child left behind, and call for more and better math and science teachers.

MONTAGNE: Earlier, you mentioned energy as an issue, and certainly, people are thinking about high gas prices.

WILLIAMS: Well, that's right. On energy he'll call for limiting dependence on foreign oil with new technologies and renewable fuels. He's expected to talk a lot about hybrid cars.

MONTAGNE: And illegal immigration, how is the president going to tackle that, given the divisions in his party on this subject?

WILLIAMS: Well, Renee, the president will address immigration, but in a vague way. The administration wants to let Congress fill in the details. That said, they'll be tough talk about added border security to keep people out, but he will tie that to America's need for workers, offering incentives to millions of illegal immigrants already in the country to make the effort to become legal citizens.

MONTAGNE: And, Juan, looking at all of these issues, all of the things the president is expected to talk about, how likely is it that all or some of this to happen?

WILLIAMS: Well, this is really the president's last chance, Renee, to assert his agenda. After this year's election, the 2008 race for the White House will be in full gallop with Republicans shifting their loyalties away from the president to the various candidates for the GOP nomination. He'll be a certified lame duck and it will be an uphill fight to get anything through Congress. Even this year, he's going to have trouble.

Every Cabinet officer is whispering about steep cuts in the budget that will create challenges to develop any new initiatives, so a lot of the details of what the president wants to do won't be spelled out until we see the new budget early next month.

MONTAGNE: Juan, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Analysis from NPR Senior Correspondent, Juan Williams.

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