JOE PALCA, host:
This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Joe Palca in Washington. Without any equipment failures one hopes President Obama delivers his first address to a joint session of Congress. The economy will dominate the speech, but the president is also expected to lay out a broader agenda of what he hopes to accomplish in the next year. It can't be easy to write a speech. It can't be an easy speech to write or deliver. On one hand, he has to acknowledge the enormous difficulties that lie ahead in pulling the country out of the recession and at the same time he has to reassure Americans that his plans for achieving that are the right ones. So, we have an assignment for you all. You write the speech, or at least tell us what you think it needs to contain. Give us a call, 800-989-2555. Email us at npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on Talk of the Nation. And with us here is NPR's chief speech writer...
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PALCA: Prognosticator and Washington news editor, Ron Elving. Hi, Ron.
RON ELVING: Hi, Joe.
PALCA: So, I mean - yeah. I guess the question is, are there any surprises, and if you know what they are, they won't be surprises. But is this going to be completely predictable or are we going to hear something we haven't heard before?
ELVING: I don't think it's going to be predictable in every nuance, not by any means. I think in some senses we could predict certain elements that we will hear in the speech. Among other things, we will hear applause, there will be tons of applause, all speeches of this nature, whether you call it the State of the Union or in this case an address to a joint session of Congress are interrupted by applause, almost after every sentence, and certainly within every paragraph. And that will come primarily from the Democratic side of the aisle, but the Democratic side of the aisle has gotten bigger. It's now 59 percent of the House and almost the same percentage in the Senate. So, there are going to be a lot of Democrats there, and they are going to be interrupting with applause a lot. Now, what is he actually going to say to get that applause? Not that it would be all that tough to coax them. But he is going to talk about increasing the confidence of the American people in themselves, in their own economic assets and in their own ability to expand those assets. And he's going to talk restoring confidence in the markets and bringing the economy back where everybody wants it to be, with full employment. He'll get a lot of applause for everything he says in that vein.
PALCA: I have a suggestion, that confidence-builder thing. Maybe he could say something about we have nothing to fear but - something.
ELVING: Yeah, Something like that.
PALCA: Something like that.
ELVING: You know, the country is in something of a mild near-panic right now.
PALCA: Uh huh.
ELVING: Because of what they've seen happen to their retirement savings, because of what they've seen happen to their housing values. And in many cases, all too many cases, what's happened to their jobs. Their jobs have literally disappeared and their prospects as well. So there is a endemic feeling throughout the country that things have gone badly wrong in the economy and we haven't seen anything quite like it, or so it seems, and the historians are agreeing, since the Great Depression when Franklin Roosevelt said that famous line about fear itself.
ELVING: I think right now we have to agree people are more afraid of what is in the future than they are stunned at what's happened up to now.
PALCA: Right. But I'm serious about that question, and I know it's an economic question even more than a political question, but are we in a situation where if Barack Obama can make people more comfortable and more confident, that alone will do a lot to solving some of the economic problems?
ELVING: It could. In fact, it could do it rather quickly. If you could just arrest this down spiral where the entire country seems to be circling the drain, if you can convince people that that's not happening and that two years from now, one year from now, six months now, people will have a sense of things turning back upward, just that it's not all going to go away - then, you might see some more rational behavior.
But you talk to people now who have jobs and do not expect to lose their job in the next six months, and they are no longer spending money the way they normally would. They're either putting it in the bank or they're doing whatever they can to try to build some sort of a hedge against all this uncertainty. But they are not going out and spending money the way they normally would and that means other people's businesses are going down and other people are losing their jobs.
PALCA: It's just an amazing, it's an amazing set of interconnects, and it's funny to think that it's as much psychological as economic and political. But let's see what our callers think. And go first to Robert(ph) in Douglas, Wyoming. Is that right?
ROBERT (Caller): Yes, sir.
PALCA: Welcome to the show.
ROBERT Fabulous show. Thank you very much for taking my call.
PALCA: You bet.
ROBERT: I believe that the economy has definitely suffered a bit of a downturn in the last six months, but nothing that can't be recovered by entrepreneurial spirit, which is alive and well in the United States. Having said that, government investment itself will not do the trick. We have to involve the American people much as post World War II, when we so-called rallied to arms to bring our economy back on track. And I think the same holds true today, but the focus is a little different. It's based on energy. And we have to put more resource in developing a smarter transportation system, both mass and individual transit. But also a more cohesive power structure that involves not only renewable energies but nuclear fuels and as well our traditional coals.
PALCA: Interesting, you mentioned nuclear there, Robert. As I understand it that disappeared from one of the language in the stimulus bill, so maybe President Obama isn't heading in the nuclear direction.
ELVING: My sense is that the nuclear direction is not seen as being as immediately and rich a source of job creation. But there may be other things at work in that decision as well. The president is probably still somewhat ambivalent about his relationship with some of the environmental movement elements that are intransigently opposed to nuclear power as a bigger part of the American energy mix. Now, Barack Obama is not one of those people, but he is supported by a lot of those people and he's still working out his political relationships with a lot of that movement.
PALCA: All right, let's now go to Mark(ph) in Salt Lake City - or I suppose it's Salt Lake City, Utah. Welcome to Talk of the Nation.
MARK (Caller): Thank you. The American people have lost confidence in two major institutions - corporate America, in other words, Wall Street, and Congress. And one of the reasons why we haven't been able to do anything about this is corporate America buys off Congress, to either not regulate them or let them do what they want to. If Obama provided the leadership to get Congress to completely stop taking corporate America - corporate donations from PACs and all special-interest money, and limit their campaign financing to $100,000 it would restore America's confidence in our leaders so we would believe they weren't being paid off by corporations and that they were actually representing us and actually regulating corporate America.
PALCA: OK, interesting suggestion, Mark. Likely, Ron?
ELVING: There are a lot of good ideas there and a lot of fine ideals, and I do think that at times in his career, Barack Obama has sounded a little bit like this caller in pointing out the connection between policy, regulation and the rest of it and campaign finance contributions. Many of the attempts that have been made to limit spending in politics and to cut the, if you will, cord between corporate America and politics have run up against the problem of the First Amendment. People have interpreted it in the court system, particularly the Supreme Court in a famous decision back in the 1970s, they've interpreted money as speech and any restriction on the ability of individuals or corporations and so forth to get involved has had to pass a free speech test. So this has been a real struggle, and asking people to do it voluntarily, as I think I might have heard the caller say, is great and we would love to be able to say that anybody didn't volunteer to limit corporate contributions or didn't, you know, clean up his act in terms of campaign finance would be defeated. But we haven't seen that an experience yet over the last 30 years.
PALCA: Do you think that Supreme Court decision was the genesis of the expression "money talks?"
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ELVING: Well, I remember even before that, but, that decision Bob Dylan said money doesn't talk, it swears.
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PALCA: OK, well, Bob Dylan knew how to, had a way with words. Let's go now to Justin(ph) in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Justin, welcome to show.
JUSTIN (Caller): Hi, there. I wanted to say that what I think a lot of Americans are looking for in tonight's speech, and I'm speaking particularly for myself, is that we've heard really detailed plans and I think we understand that there's going to be a process of getting out of this, and we want to hear about ways that we can involved in helping. I think a big part is getting Americans involved in the process. Involve everyday Americans, involved in trying to help stimulate this economy, help out. And in these plans hear about we're going to able to be a part of that. You know, how can we contribute, how can we do our efforts? And he's talked a lot about people being responsible and taking action. You know, I hope tonight we get a real detailed way of what we can do, different things we can contribute, ways we can help out others and really try to get through this as a country.
PALCA: OK, that's interesting, Justin. What about that, Ron, this notion of, you know, Barack Obama, I think in the campaign spoke of sacrifices. And we haven't heard that much about what he's asking the American people to do. I mean, famously in the Bush administration the idea was - we're asking you to go out and spend money, because that's good. And we - and that is good in a sense. But what is the president asking the American people to do, besides believe in him?
ELVING: I think he's asking to believe in themselves and believe in the system, in the idea that if you have confidence enough to keep your money in the bank or to spend your money as you normally would do - don't panic, don't run down to your final institution in, you know, some kind of fear that the money is not going to be there. Don't worry about whether or not you're going to have a job in five years or three years or two years unless you have some specific reason to do so. If everyone is in a lockdown panic, and no one has the confidence to act in a normal economic manner, then the normal economy can't function. So I think we might hear some tonight that might echo a little bit of that 2001 admonition from George Bush - go out and shop, go out and do what you would normally do. Take those trips, don't be afraid to fly on airplanes, get out there and live your life. We're Americans, we don't want to let the terrorists win. And in this case the president might be saying we don't want to let this bad psychology drag us down, and this bad downturn in our economy be the end of our story.
PALCA: OK. Let's hear what Robert in Cincinnati would like to hear the president say.
ROBERT: I know he won't say it, but I'm wondering whether he or anyone else would speak up for the concerns about carbon emissions and say that maybe the downturn in the economy - I don't want to sound too insensitive - is good for the environment. Has anyone said that? Is it possible the president could say that? Or along the same lines, maybe this is the end of the consumerism. Maybe we ought to refigure what our priorities are in this world and that a growing economy is not the ultimate good.
PALCA: Right, interesting point, but - well, thank you for that, Robert. It is this restructuring notion that would have to happen, because if we do change course and stop emitting because our economy is failing, that's ultimately not a sustainable way of living in the society that we're in.
ELVING: It's certainly not a way of sustaining the kind of prosperity that most Americans are accustomed to. Now, there have been, over the years, back-to-the-land movements. We had the Schumacher movement, small is beautiful, and so on. And these were popular ideas within a certain generation and within a certain sensibility of Americans. I would say that is a very fine sensibility and one that has a lot to teach us about how we survive in the long run. In the very short run, people kind of had shown that they prefer their prosperity. And while we're still balancing this idea between energy and environment, the green of that movement with the green of money, this is an opportunity - the caller is quite right - to ask people to examine in their own lives what about a somewhat more constrained view of prosperity might be a good thing.
PALCA: We're listening to people's opinion about what the president should say tonight, including Mr. Ron Elving's opinion. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And I think we have time for one more quick call, and let's go to Mary(ph) in Berkeley, California.
MARY (Caller): Hi there. I would like President Obama to help raise our economic literacy, to help everyone understand these economic complexities that face us. Because there's so many areas where the terms are being misused and it's doing more harm than good. And I think that what's creating fear. And when people have knowledge - and I think President Obama can help us get there - we will have a better understanding on how to deal with this.
PALCA: OK. Mary, thank you for that. Knowledge is power, right, Ron?
ELVING: Yes, and I do think that this particular downturn in our economy is proving to be the best economic lesson and the best example of education in economics that this country has ever had. It's more clearly understood, I think, and more people realize the degree to which confidence fuels everything.
PALCA: All right. Ron Elving is NPR senior Washington editor. He joined us here in Studio 3A. We'll be listening tonight. And be sure to join in tomorrow, our political junkie Ken Rudin will be here with the hits and misses of tonight's speech.
ELVING: Thank you, Joe.