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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
This morning we've been hearing highlights of President Obama's State of the Union Address. Over the next few minutes we want to dig into the specifics. We gathered in our studio a group of NPR correspondents to put into context some of what the president said last night. We'll start with an announcement that was expected, involving raising the minimum wage for a few Americans.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT: In the coming weeks, I will issue an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay their federally-funded employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour, because if you cook our troops' meals or wash their dishes, you should not have to live in poverty.
MONTAGNE: Tamara Keith covers the White House for NPR. And Tamara, first off, how many people is the president talking about here?
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: We don't know. That's the honest answer. We don't know how many. House Speaker John Boehner suggested that it would be somewhere close to zero. And the reason we don't know, and the reason why it could be a low number - other estimates put it at more like a couple hundred thousand - is that this applies only to new federal contracts. Not current contracts, not current employees of these contractors.
But if a new contract is negotiated, it would apply to those employees. And we don't know really how many of those are outstanding or when these contracts might be negotiated, which is why there are a lot of details to fill in here.
MONTAGNE: Well, the president talked about other ways in which the minimum wage has been raised around the country that didn't involve Congress. But as he himself put it, Congress needs to get on board if millions are to be reached.
KEITH: That would be true. Some states have raised their minimum wages. He also pointed to employers who have decided to pay their employees more than the minimum wage, even though they don't have to. So he's trying a lot of different options, also try to put a little pressure on Congress to raise the minimum wage as well - but that seems like it's not going to happen anytime soon.
House Republicans are just absolutely not interested in raising the minimum wage, in part because they believe that it hurts businesses and by extension low-wage employees.
MONTAGNE: Let's turn now to look at another area where, to make a difference, Congress and the president have to come together.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When people come here to fulfill their dreams - to study, invent, contribute to our culture - they make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everybody. So let's get immigration reform done this year.
MONTAGNE: Immigration reform, it's been a tough one. And this year the president framed his call for immigration reform in economic terms.
Joining us is NPR congressional correspondent David Welna, and what about that?
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Renee, you know, he said that having some kind of immigration overhaul could lead to a trillion dollars in both economic growth and deficit reduction over the next 20 years. That works out to be about a billion dollars a week. But I think the real point was that doing this would benefit everybody and not just immigrants, there's something in it for all of us.
MONTAGNE: And in fact, there does seem to be momentum building for some sort of reform.
WELNA: There does in the House. It wasn't unclear that anything was going to happen as late as late last year. But suddenly it seems that House speaker John Boehner has a new resolve to get something done this election year. And in fact House Republicans are going off to a three-day retreat today, where they will be presented with a plan that even mentions the possibility of legal status for millions of people who are here without authorization. And it would go so far as to grant citizenship for the children who were brought illegally by their parents.
Now, this goes a lot farther than Republicans have gone in the past. It's a very divisive issue for their party. And there are some Republicans who are saying don't do it, it could screw things up for the election. But I think President Obama was trying to tread lightly with this and let the Republicans do it on their own and not squeeze the bar too tightly lest it slip out.
MONTAGNE: Well, in fact this goes to the overall theme of the president's speech, which was opportunity, and to that end Mr. Obama talked about the opportunity for a good education in what might be called his trademark program.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
OBAMA: Race to the Top, with the help of governors from both parties, has helped states raise expectations and performance.
MONTAGNE: We've brought in education correspondent Claudio Sanchez. And Claudio, does everyone agree that the Race to the Top has been a great success?
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: No.
MONTAGNE: In a word.
SANCHEZ: Although - no, in a word. Although I have to say there was polite agreement and scattered praise from teachers unions, school board officials and public education advocates in the reaction to the president's comments. But in the trenches, most educators resent that the president's education policies have been used as a carrot and stick, distributing billions of dollars to states on the condition that they adopt reforms prescribed by the administration, like adopting career and college-ready standards, shutting down failing schools, performance pay for teachers, and tying teacher evaluations to kids' test scores.
All highly controversial, all generating lots of pushback from teachers, parents, groups opposed to more testing, and community activists who say their neighborhood schools are being shut down and replaced by privately run charter schools, or what some call the privatization of public education. So there is a lot of work that the president has to do in the coming year to mend these relationships with key groups.
MONTAGNE: And that was part of a speech that, for the most part last night, was domestic. But not all domestic. President Obama touched on a few challenging areas of foreign policy, including Syria and Iran, but he got sustained applause when he said this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
OBAMA: More than 60,000 of our troops have already come home from Afghanistan. With Afghan forces now in the lead for their own security, our troops have moved to a support role. Together with our allies, we will complete our mission there by the end of this year and America's longest war will finally be over.
MONTAGNE: NPR's national security editor Bruce Auster is here in the studio. And Bruce, combat operations will be over by 2014, the end of the year, but the president also said a small force could remain behind to train and advise Afghan forces and pursue al-Qaida, so the war's not quite over.
BRUCE AUSTER, BYLINE: That's right. The end of the year means that the 37,000 troops who are there now, that number comes way down, and so the combat mission ends. But the question that remains is how many stay behind. And if the United States and Afghanistan sign a security agreement, and there's a big if there about whether that happens, then the question becomes how many troops stay.
The Pentagon wants 10,000 troops to remain because they want to do two missions. They want to do a counterterrorism mission and they want to be able to train Afghan forces. That's the number they say they need. There are people in the White House who want a smaller number. And this raises, again, the question, the tension between security and politics. Politically, people just want this over.
But to get out properly and not leave the place in chaos may require keeping troops behind.
MONTAGNE: And beyond Afghanistan, the president repeated his hopes to end what he calls the state of permanent war that we've been in since 9/11.
AUSTER: That's right. It's a theme he's raised before. It's the idea that the war on terror has gone all these years, how does it ever end and does it ever end? The legacies of the war on terror are things like Guantanamo, the surveillance program we've heard a lot about in the news, the drone policy. The question is, if the war ever ends, how do those specific policies change? And with things like Guantanamo, we've learned over the years how hard it is to close that place.
Each of these policies poses challenges in terms of how the president winds it down.
MONTAGNE: That's national security editor Bruce Auster. We were also joined by education correspondent Claudio Sanchez, David Welna, our congressional correspondent and White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thanks to all of you for joining us.
KEITH: Thank you.
WELNA: Thank you.
SANCHEZ: You're welcome.
MONTAGNE: And they were breaking down some of what we heard from President Obama last night in his fifth State of the Union speech before Congress. We have more reaction to the president's address elsewhere in the program.
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