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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, we'll talk about the ban on photographing the coffins of fallen service members as they return to the U.S. The Obama administration is considering lifting a ban that's been in effect for more than a decade. But we wanted to know how family members feel about that. So, we talk with two mothers who both lost their sons to the war in Iraq but who have very different views; that conversation, later this hour. But first, the speech: President Obama delivered his first address to a joint session of Congress last night. He talked about energy, education and health care, but the economy clearly took center stage. He talked about the recovery measures the administration and Congress have already put into place and tried to offer encouragement for the future. Well, there are two perspectives on the president's speech. In a moment, we'll speak with House Majority Whip Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina. He's the number-three Democratic leader in the House. But first, to the loyal opposition, Michael Steele; he is the chairman of the Republican National Committee and a former lieutenant governor of Maryland. Welcome back.

Mr. MICHAEL STEELE (Chairman, Republican National Committee): Michel, it's great to be with you again.

MARTIN: Well, thank you, and I want to talk about the substance, obviously.

Mr. STEELE: Sure.

MARTIN: But you're known as a pretty good speaker yourself. So, how did the president do on his first dedication since the inauguration?

Mr. STEELE: Oh, President Obama was just - he was stellar. It was a real joy to listen to him speak and deliver very powerful messages. I mean, there's no denying that he will be one of those communicators in American history that can move people. And that it was clear in the campaign, and I think it was clear - clearly a part of the effort last night was to move the American people towards his package, towards his agenda for the country, and I thought he did a very good job of doing that.

MARTIN: Did he strike the right tone?

Mr. STEELE: I think he did. I think - well, he's beginning to. Remember, they have been doom and gloom for a long time now, and I think they overplayed it to the point where people were retrenching; in other words, they weren't necessarily biting the apples to the various stimulus packages that were being presented. And I think last night what the president was trying to say, yes, you know, these are tough times, but we need you to do what you do best, and that is to gather as community and invest in the economy, invest in the markets, and help provide the strength that's going to be necessary for us to grow out of this. And I think that was an appropriate tone. The problem, where, I think you and I want to discuss a little bit, is on the substance of that. What does it mean? How does that translate? Exactly what is the impact of putting 1.4 - well, what will be ultimately $1.4 trillion into this economy on top of the trillion dollars that's already gone into it over the last three or four months?

MARTIN: Well, to that point, let me play a short clip, and I just want to mention to our listeners, we'll have the full text and audio of the address on our Web site in case you missed it. Let me just play a short clip that speaks to the point you're just about to make. Here, President Obama is talking about his stimulus plan. Here it is.

(Soundbite of presidential address, February 24, 2009)

President BARACK OBAMA: But while the cost of action will be great, I can assure you that the cost of inaction will be far greater, for it could result in an economy that sputters along for not months or years, but perhaps a decade. That would be worse for our deficit, worse for business, worse for you and worse for the next generation, and I refuse to let that happen.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: To your point, it's been very much discussed already that the president only got three Republican votes on the Senate side for his plan; none on the House side. Do you worry that Republicans will just be seen as the party of no?

Mr. STEELE: I don't, I don't. I soundly reject the view that, you know, I can't disagree with this president on the fundamentals of a huge spending bill. And you know, it - you know, this bill does everything and gives you the kitchen sink on top of it. I mean, on the one hand, he's telling us, we're going to get tax cuts. Then he tells us he's going to reduce the deficit. Well, OK, how do you reduce the deficit and give tax cuts at the same time you've just increased spending at an unprecedented level? Remember what happened when Reagan did it? Remember what happened when Bush did it? Democrats were famous for saying, well, you know, Republicans cut taxes and continued to spend; that created debt. And that's exactly what it is.

So, the reality, for me, as the chairman of the party, is to call that out. I mean, you know, because I disagree with your package doesn't mean that I'm not willing to find some way in which we can work together and compromise to get this thing right. Republicans were not invited to the table. I think the president made a fundamental misstep in the very beginning by giving this bill to the House for Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid in the Senate. It's a craft. The White House should have crafted the bill working in tandem with Republican leadership and the Senate leadership and Democratic leadership, and that would have been a very different outcome than what we saw developed by the House in the first bill and in the compromise package between the House and the Senate. So, I disagree that all this spending is going to do well by this economy.

MARTIN: Along those lines, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal gave the Republican response to the president's address. Part of his message was acknowledging that the Republican Party has also lost the confidence of many Americans. Here's a short clip.

(Soundbite of Republican Party presidential-address response, February 24, 2009)

Governor BOBBY JINDAL (Republican, Louisiana): Republicans went along with earmarks and big-government spending in Washington. Republicans lost your trust, and rightly so. Tonight, on behalf of our leaders in Congress and my fellow Republican governors, I say this: Our party is determined to regain your trust.

MARTIN: Again, that was Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal with the Republican response to the president's speech. He seemed to be making the point that government is not the solution; it's the problem. Do you agree with that? And is that a winning message at a time when many Americans are very disappointed with the private sector and feel the private sector has let them down?

Mr. STEELE: Well, look, you can't give up on the private sector. They are the ones that create jobs. You know, we argue a lot for deregulation, Michel, but you know, deregulation with inappropriate oversight is a ruse, it's a mess, and we've seen that. And I think Governor Jindal hit it dead on. Republicans came to Washington after 1994, when the people entrusted us with their confidence and their vote, and we lost our minds. We got caught up in being in Washington; we got caught up with big-government ideas. We saw at the end of the Bush administration big-government Republicanism, where we were, you know, proposing bailout plans and spending money and creating greater deficits. And it goes counter to everything that we stand for with respect to the economic principles that we've espoused.

MARTIN: Do you think that his reference to Katrina was apt? He gave this anecdote about all these guys with boats who wanted to go out and they were told by a bureaucrat not to go. Do you think that was apt? You're a person who is very critical of the government's response in that picture.

Mr. STEELE: Yeah, I think it was apt, because it was stupid. I mean, this is an exact example of how big-government Republicanism got it wrong. When, you know, when a community is in harm's way, the last thing they need is the government to interfere with the rescue process. And that's what the governor was eluding to, that when government has a tendency to get bureaucratic, it has a tendency to mess things up, and that was an example of that. And I agree with the governor on that. I'm putting us on a 12-step recovery program, and the first part of that is asserting and being very clear about the fact that we have our own sins to account for to the American people, and I think it's appropriate to acknowledge that we made the mistakes and we know what we speak when we talk about the dangers that lie with excess spending, government intervention in the markets and the lack of reliance on the private sector, ala small-business community, who employ 70 percent of the workers in this country, by the way, to help us grow to recovery.

MARTIN: Michael Steele is the chairman of the Republican National Committee. He joined us on the line from his office. Mr. Chairman, thank you so much.

Mr. STEELE: Thank you so much, Michel.

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