GUY RAZ, host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKENDS ON ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.
Unidentified Man: Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States.
(Soundbite of applause)
RAZ: Tuesday night, President Obama delivers his second State of the Union address before Congress. Our cover story this Sunday is in three parts: What the president will say, what some policy experts hope he says, and how the Republicans plan to respond.
First to the what. And for that, we turn to Peter Baker, White House correspondent for The New York Times.
Mr. PETER BAKER (White House Correspondent, The New York Times): Thanks for having me.
RAZ: In recent months, as you know, the president has likened our current situation to a new Sputnik age, a sort of a turning point where America will have to confront a whole series of consequential challenges. Is that the theme he's likely to strike on Tuesday night?
Mr. BAKER: I think you'll hear a lot of that idea, the idea of making America competitive again in the world, that the risk of falling behind our competitors, like China and India in particular, is too great not to find ways of improving America's posture.
And that includes a lot of different things that President Obama considers to be priorities, not just trade, which is an obvious one, but things like education, how to get our workforce better trained, research, innovation, infrastructure, high-speed trains, that kind of thing.
RAZ: Are you going to be looking for clues in what the president is expected to say? In Bill Clinton's 1995 State of the Union, a similar situation, he had to face a newly elected Republican House of Representatives. I mean, do you think that will sort of give us a sense of where President Obama might be headed, at least with his rhetoric?
Mr. BAKER: I think we will. I think we've begun to see, in small ways, anyway, a more - a repositioning of where he is at. That's not to say he's given up on the things he really cares about. He's still going to defend the health care overhaul against Republican efforts to repeal it. He's still going to defend things he did in terms of stimulus, financial regulation and so forth.
But you hear him talking more about trade, which wasn't a big theme in his first year, for instance. You hear him this week appointing a new competitiveness council, headed by Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive of GE, reaching out to the business community in different ways.
RAZ: He's got Bill Daley as a new chief of staff and Jacob Lew, these sort of pro-business guys around him now.
Mr. BAKER: Exactly. And he promised to look at regulations that hobbled job creation. So you're hearing a little bit of a recognition that he needs to work out a new relationship with business. (Unintelligible)...
RAZ: There is this perception, of course, that he is - his administration...
Mr. BAKER: Right.
RAZ: ...has been anti-business.
Mr. BAKER: Right.
RAZ: And do you think this speech will be an effort to kind of mend those ties?
Mr. BAKER: I do think that's part of it, absolutely. He's going to say, look, this is too important for all of us to fracture over old lines of pro and anti-business.
RAZ: Peter, you have covered Washington for a long time. You've seen these moments nearly every January, when the president goes to address Congress. How much does it set the tone for the year ahead?
Mr. BAKER: I think it does set a tone. The State of the Union is important because it's an organizing document for a presidency. It's not just a speech he writes a couple of days in advance. It's something that goes to a process over weeks and weeks, leading up to a speech in which the whole of government comes together and say, what are we going to make our priority?
So what gets in the State of the Union and what doesn't get in the State of the Union is really a proxy fight for what the whole year is going to be about for an administration.
RAZ: All right. Peter, we know you are well-connected. You've got deep sources. Give us some surprises. Any surprises?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BAKER: Well, I think if we - if I knew them, they wouldn't be surprises. I would - I think an interesting parlor game on Tuesday night will be to count the number of times you hear the word jobs and hear the - with the word competitiveness. What you probably won't hear, for instance, would be words like Iraq, Afghanistan.
And you'll get to see the applause lines. What is, you know, the applause line? Part of what happened in 2010 was he came right off the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts, and he basically came back and said, I don't give up easily. Don't think you're going to roll me. This time around, having had a relatively successful lame-duck session, the imperative is a little different.
I think he has to find a way of asserting his strength but also making himself look reasonable to the broader public so that if there are fights to come, he looks like the good guy, and the other guys don't.
RAZ: That's Peter Baker. He's a White House correspondent for The New York Times.
Peter, thanks so much for coming in.
Mr. BAKER: Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.
RAZ: Now imagine if you could give that speech. Well, we asked three top policy experts to deliver their own dream version of the State of the Union. We'll hear from Maya MacGuineas. She is the president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget at the New America Foundation; also from Bruce Bartlett, a former domestic policy adviser to President Ronald Reagan; and Heather Hurlburt, a former special assistant to President Bill Clinton, who's now with the National Security Network. We begin with Maya MacGuineas.
Ms. MAYA MacGUINEAS (President, Committee for a Responsible Budget, New America Foundation): We all know that our deficits are too large. We cannot continue to borrow beyond our means without facing dire economic consequences. For the past few years, my primary focus has had to be on fixing the economy, and though we're not out of the woods yet, we must now turn our attention to getting our nation's fiscal house in order.
Controlling the debt affects everything I and we all care about, including providing our children a first-rate education, investing in the technologies of the future, protecting the most vulnerable and building a competitive business environment. Every one of those national priorities is at risk until we right our fiscal ship. If we lose control of our debt, we lose control of our destiny.
So tonight, I invite the leadership from the House and the Senate to join me for a budget retreat, where we will work until we come up with a bipartisan plan to bring down the debt. This will not be easy. But we must put behind us finger pointing and political posturing and solve this problem. I will not consider my work complete until we pass a plan to do so.
RAZ: That's Maya MacGuineas. Now to former Reagan adviser Bruce Bartlett.
Mr. BRUCE BARTLETT (Columnist, The Fiscal Times): There is almost universal agreement that the tax code is a mess. It is cluttered with a vast number of special tax provisions that benefit neither the economy, society nor the Treasury. Worse, these provisions, called tax expenditures, may even hinder growth by encouraging individuals and businesses to invest their time and money inefficiently.
Economic decisions ought to be based on fundamentals, not because the tax code provides a subsidy for doing one thing rather than another. It is clear that one reform will have to be a reduction in tax rates on American businesses, which are handicapped by one of the higher corporate tax rates among major countries. But this must not be the beginning and end of tax reform.
Cleaning up the code and getting rid of special deals for particular businesses and industries is just as important as cutting rates. Furthermore, the package must be balanced. We can't afford another big tax cut, and any tax bill that is not paid for will meet my veto pen.
RAZ: Former Reagan adviser Bruce Bartlett. And finally to former Clinton adviser Heather Hurlburt.
Ms. HEATHER HURLBURT (Executive Director, National Security Network): My fellow Americans, as president, I hear every day from the most respected, least partisan institution in our national life: the U.S. military. Our men and women in uniform are asking for civilian leadership that goes beyond bickering.
You might be surprised, and we can all be inspired, by what they have to say about the core issues we face, like clean energy, debt reduction and economic competitiveness.
The military is asking us not to wait to make investments in clean energy and green jobs. So the Pentagon isn't waiting: It's researching next-generation fuels, putting wind farms on Army bases and solar arrays on Air Force hangars. Surely we, in Washington, can do the same.
RAZ: Heather Hurlburt speaking, and before, we heard from Bruce Bartlett and Maya MacGuineas.
Now, Republicans in Congress plan to launch a debate on spending the very day President Obama is set to deliver his speech. Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan is spearheading that conversation.
Congressman Jordan, welcome to the program.
Representative JIM JORDAN (Republican, Ohio): Good to be with you.
RAZ: You're proposing cuts that, over the next 10 years, you say could amount to about $2.5 trillion in savings. I wonder why you think your plan is better or more substantial than the plan put forward by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Commission back in December. That proposal would cut four trillion over that same period.
Rep. JORDAN: Well, a couple of things. One, theirs has tax increases in it, and we just don't accept the premise that, you know, somehow you need to raise taxes to deal with deficits and debt. Deficits and debt are caused by government spending.
And the other thing that we think is critical is to truly deal with the amount of debt we now have, you've got to have economic growth. And to have economic growth, you can't be raising taxes on the job creators.
RAZ: Congressman Jordan, your plan makes cuts primarily in non-defense discretionary spending.
Rep. JORDAN: Mm-hmm.
RAZ: I counted about 50 programs.
Rep. JORDAN: Mm-hmm.
RAZ: As you know, most deficit hawks, including Ronald Reagan's former budget director David Stockman, who said on this program, he said, you can't cut the budget deficit substantially without going after entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security. Are - I mean, are you intentionally sort of skirting around touching those two very sensitive programs?
Rep. JORDAN: No. I said today, Guy - and it's a good question. Does everything need to be on the table? Certainly. We need to look at the entitlements. We need to look at making sure that we protect and save Social Security. And in order to do that, you're going to have to make some changes. We need to make sure we protect and save Medicare. In order to do that, you're going to have to make some changes. So certainly, those need to be a part of a discussion as well.
RAZ: You say changes to entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, but, I mean, let's, you know, talk frankly. I mean, changes is going to mean cuts, some kind of cuts?
Rep. JORDAN: Certainly people at or near retirement age should be able to stay in the exact same system because they've structured and built their lives around that model.
But for younger Americans, we need to begin to make some changes and empower them and their family to do something different that will protect the systems going forward and frankly empower them and their family as they also move to the future.
RAZ: I mean, obviously, many of the programs that are proposed to be cut are pale in size and scope to the large entitlement programs or defense spending. For example, there's a proposal to cut the U.S. Agency for International Development.
This is an agency that many foreign policy experts would argue is the tip of the spear...
Rep. JORDAN: Mm-hmm.
RAZ: ...of America's soft-power diplomacy. These are programs to, you know, educate the world about the good things that the United States does.
I mean, wouldn't the elimination of a program like USAID have some serious national security consequences?
Rep. JORDAN: It may, in fact, have. Guy, who knows? But let's have the debate. Here's the point: The bulk of our savings in this bill comes because we reduce overall spending. We now have to go through and do the hard analysis, program by program, line item by line item, and say, okay, is this wasteful? Is this redundant? Does this program work?
So maybe you're right on that particular program, but I think it's important to include it in the discussion and move forward so that we can get to real savings.
RAZ: The Senate Democrats say this plan probably will never pass the Senate. Where could you see daylight with the other side, with Democrats?
Rep. JORDAN: You know, I don't know - see, I just - people have said the same thing with this, you know, the health care repeal that we did. I mean, I always use the analogy, you know, every Friday night in the fall, we have football games in Ohio and across this country, and many times, there's one team that's heavily favored and all - the underdog. There's no way they can win. They still kick the ball off. They still play the game.
I think we have to do what we told the voters we were going to do, send it over to the next body and see what happens.
RAZ: That's Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan, chairman of the Republican Study Committee. That's the Conservative Caucus in the House of Representatives.
Congressman, thank you.
Rep. JORDAN: Thank you, Guy. Take care.