Reviewing Obama's First State Of The Union Jobs, the economy… and more about jobs. President Obama stressed those top priorities as he addressed Congress and the nation Wednesday night in his first State of the Union address. The president attempted to re-set his policy agenda and his relationship with the American people after what he called "one of the most difficult years in our history." NPR's Neal Conan leads a discussion about the ambitious plans put forth by the president.
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Reviewing Obama's First State Of The Union

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Reviewing Obama's First State Of The Union

Reviewing Obama's First State Of The Union

Reviewing Obama's First State Of The Union

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Jobs, the economy… and more about jobs. President Obama stressed those top priorities as he addressed Congress and the nation Wednesday night in his first State of the Union address. The president attempted to re-set his policy agenda and his relationship with the American people after what he called "one of the most difficult years in our history." NPR's Neal Conan leads a discussion about the ambitious plans put forth by the president.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Jobs, the economy - and jobs. President Obama returned to those subjects repeatedly as he tried to reset his political agenda and his relationship with Congress and the American people last night.

I get it, he said. I know how difficult it is for American families who've lost their jobs or their homes or their health coverage.

He went on to some specifics: tighter banking regulations, tax breaks for small businesses, a spending freeze on many domestic programs. Yes, he talked some about Haiti and foreign policy, forces out of Iraq, up in Afghanistan. He called for the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, but time and again, he reinforced his commitment to focus on the fragile economy and get people back to work.

He also took some time to scold both political parties.

President BARACK OBAMA: To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills.

(Soundbite of applause)

President OBAMA: And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, a supermajority, then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well.

(Soundbite of applause)

President OBAMA: Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: President Obama last night. Later in the program, we'll remember author J.D. Salinger, and what did you learn from Howard Zinn? But first, the president's legislative agenda. Of all the things President Obama talked about last, what do you think actually might happen? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join that conversation on our Web site. Thats at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And joining us here in Studio 3A is Ron Elving, NPR senior Washington editor. Hey, Ron.

RON ELVING: Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And already today, we've seen evidence that that 60-vote supermajority is still functioning, at least for the moment.

ELVING: Well, for the moment because they have yet to swear in Scott Brown, the winner of that Massachusetts election that's been so famously discussed, perhaps the most famous special election in Senate history, a week ago, and Scott Brown has not yet taken the office. So it's still 60-40. Paul Kirk is still voting in that seat.

And today, the Democrats have had the 60-40 advantage to forestall a filibuster and move forward on a couple of issues. One was raising the debt ceiling, which is a bit of business that each party has had to shoulder when it's had the majority in Congress, because so rarely have we had actually budget balance in this country over the last 40 years.

So as a result, somebody has to raise the limit, and they've just raised it again so that they think they can get through 2010 and the next set of elections without exceeding the deficit limit, the debt, the overall debt -this goes all the way back to 1789 - the overall debt limit and therefore default on American obligations.

So that's a very important bit of housekeeping, but of course it's also a very political one. No Republicans want to vote for that at the present moment, so it was 60-40. And attached to that, they also had a little gimmick that the president referred to in his speech last night called PAYGO, and this goes back to the 1990s.

And without rehearsing the whole history of it, it essentially says if you're going to spend more money, you have to do something to pay for it, and if you're going to cut taxes, you have to figure out how to fill in on the revenue. You can't just add to the deficit, and the Republicans said this is going to be a fig leaf, it's going to be too easily gotten around. So we don't want to vote for it and look like we're responsible for it. They let the Democrats pass it.

CONAN: So nothing, apparently, has changed since last night.

ELVING: Not visibly in the United States Senate, and I don't expect that anything will in the immediate term. The president probably doesn't either. What he was trying to do last night was the classic bank shot of American politics, which is if you can't move the Senate, you try to get the country to change its mind a little bit. Even a five-point move in the polls could loosen things up in the Senate quite quickly, affecting both parties, affecting people who are worried about their re-election.

The president, in that clip that you played, said the Democrats shouldn't run for the hills. The problem isn't they're running for the hills. The problem is that they're running for re-election.

CONAN: Re-election, yes, at least a third of them in the Senate.

ELVING: And all of them in the House, and they're quite worried about their future in November, and that's why the president's been having trouble moving them.

CONAN: And today as he's in Tampa, calling for high-speed rail programs in I think 13 states, but including one from Tampa to Orlando, he said: I want Republicans off the sidelines. And, well, those things are going to happen because that's money that Congress has already passed.

ELVING: That's correct. The president can direct money that's already in the system, that's already in the pipeline, as it were, and he can push it into certain areas where he hopes there will be at least reasonably quick payoff in terms of jobs or at least the promise of jobs.

A lot of this is a great deal of this and all economic and political relationships are a kind of psychology about whether people see things getting better or see at least a reasonable prospect of things getting better fairly soon, so that they feel better.

Otherwise, if they're in despair, if they don't see things getting better, that's when you see real negative political consequences.

CONAN: Well, one of the things the president has been talking about now for a while is that spending freeze on non-national defense, non-security, discretionary spending, and it's a small part of the a relatively small part of the budget.

ELVING: And eighth or a ninth.

CONAN: Something like that, but anyway, a similar bill came up in the Senate today, and well, the Senate voted against it.

ELVING: No love, it got no love. This again is an idea that Republicans can characterize as a fig leaf, as something that doesn't really make a big difference, that they - the pay excuse me, the spending freeze would be at a level that is already something like 20 percent higher than it was just a couple years ago.

So they don't see that as a cure for big spending by the federal government. Meanwhile, the Democrats don't want to live with it.

CONAN: Then there is the question of the item that was labeled the president's number one priority on his domestic agenda, and that has been health care.

A few two weeks ago it looked like that might be enacted even before the State of the Union. Nevertheless, it now looks dim.

ELVING: Well, it certainly looked a lot better two weeks ago than it does now, but its also possible that the way it looked two weeks ago was a bit of mirage, that just because they still had 60 votes in the Senate didn't mean they were going to be able to pass something there that the House would accept, and the House clearly does not want to accept what had been passed by those 60 votes in the Senate.

If it were willing to, this would be a done deal. It would be over with, and it would be on the president's desk. They could have done that last week.

But they arent willing to do that, the House is not. They don't like the Senate bill. They don't like a lot of the process that led to it. So they're digging their heels in on the one hand, and over on the Senate side, they can't really do much to change it once Scott Brown seated, and they don't have those 60 votes anymore.

Their alternative is do it the old-fashioned way, go back to the drawing board, at least insofar as it would take a few new sketches to bring one or two Republicans over.

CONAN: In an election year.

ELVING: In an election year. So you're probably talking to Republicans who are either not on the ballot this year, totally safe or retiring.

CONAN: And there are a bunch of those.

ELVING: Six of those.

CONAN: And so this is not out of the realms of possibility, but right now you don't necessarily see a way from here to there.

ELVING: If the president saw a way from here to there, he would have told us about it last night, I do believe.

CONAN: And as you looked at this legislative agenda, the things that he would like the Congress to pass, are you saying literally there's talk of a climate bill that might be bipartisan, might not be cap and trade, that might move ahead?

ELVING: I think if what the president believes and the Democrats in Congress believe is that they need to really change their image over the next six or eight months in order to get back in position to do well in the elections next November and get back in the good graces of independents, if that's what they believe, there is still time to pull back, take the beating from their own most-partisan elements of their own party and their own backers, and it would be quite a beating, take that beating and say look, we're going to change the face of the party, we're going to get a little more pragmatic and practical, and we're going to keep the Republicans from ruling from a position of 40 percent of the seats.

Right now, the Republicans are, in a sense, in control of the agenda in Congress, despite the fact that they are only a 40 percent minority.

CONAN: And the majority leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, says, look, we're going to call for new jobs agenda next week. Is that 40 percent going to continue, 41 percent soon, going to continue to block a jobs agenda, even as the because they don't want the Democrats to look good?

ELVING: Well, it's conceivable, and the risk they run, of course, is that people start to notice. If people really do start to notice that the agenda is being controlled, not by the Democrats but by the minority, that could then begin to produce that change in the electorate psychology that I referred to earlier.

Even a five- or 10-point move in the polls would make an enormous difference. It would really change the temperature of all those people on the Hill who go back and forth, who sometimes vote one way and sometimes vote the other. I'm not talking about the hard-core bases of either party but the people in the middle.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, What of the president's proposals last night do you think might actually end up as legislation or being enacted one way or another? Give us a call, send us an email, and we'll start with this is Mike(ph), and Mike's calling us from Lawrence, Kansas.

MIKE (Caller): Thank you for taking my call. I'm a Democrat, but I worry that not much, if any, of the stuff that he's proposing is going to get passed simply because the Republicans are the party of no. I mean, if there was some kind of empirical reaching across the aisles, like what used to happen with Bob Dole and more educated Republicans 15 years ago, stuff might happen. But these people are just the party of no. That's basically all I have to say.

CONAN: And they say and thank you very much for the call, Mike, Republicans on their side say look, with the 60 votes the Democrats had, they had an unbreakable, filibuster-proof majority. They were just going to force their way through. They didn't consult us on anything. Why should we vote on their side.

ELVING: And they certainly have an argument there, because the Democrats did change their behavior after they seated Al Franken and Arlen Specter switched parties, and they suddenly had 60 votes. What chance I think the health care bill might have had last year to be a little bit bipartisan went out the window at that point.

Now, you can say that's because the Republicans shut down, pulled the plus; or you could say it's because the Republicans were forced into that kind of a hunkered-down defensive position because the Democrats had so many votes.

And the Senate has these rules. You can't bring a bill to the floor without three-fifths if anybody is really willing to object to it, and even a handful of people is more than enough to keep it from happening.

It's a threat of a filibuster. There are all kinds of procedural things that have to be done. And in the Senate, it is possible for an utterly united it has to be completely united minority to actually have more power than a somewhat divided majority. And of course, the Democrats are always going to be somewhat divided.

CONAN: Somewhat divided.

ELVING: That's definitional.

CONAN: Is there a way to Democrats to call their bluff: All right, if you want to filibuster, go ahead. Talk until your faces turn blue.

ELVING: This is a very interesting question because that has not been done in a number of years. We haven't seen them really get out the cots like they used to do in the 50s and 60s.

CONAN: Go to the mattresses.

ELVING: Go to the mattresses. We haven't seen them argue all night, debate all night. The last time I can really remember that happening was in the 1980s, and even then, it was a bit of a sham, a bit of a bluff. And so, because we don't have any longer the old traditions of the Senate really going to the full extent of a filibuster, we haven't seen how willing the 40 or 41 would be to take it that far.

CONAN: Well, maybe we'll get to see it. Ron Elving, thanks very much for you time today.

ELVING: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Ron Elving is NPR's senior Washington editor and joined us here in Studio 3A. When we come back from a short break, we're going to be talking with Adam Davidson, a correspondent for NPR's PLANET MONEY, about the specific economic proposals and the jobs proposals the president was making in his speech last night.

Again, what do you think has a chance to get through? What would you like to see? 800-989-8255. Email us, Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In the State of the Union message last night, President Obama said he understands the pain of Americans who've lost their jobs and have not been able to find new ones.

President OBAMA: But I realize that for every success story, there are other stories, of men and women who wake up with the anguish of not knowing where their next paycheck will come from, who send out resumes week after week and hear nothing in response. That is why jobs must be our number-one focus in 2010, and that's why I'm calling for a new jobs bill tonight.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: President Obama also called for a repeal of don't ask, don't tell. In a bit, we'll find out what it might take to make that happen, but right now, we focus on jobs and the economy. NPR's Adam Davidson, a correspondent on our PLANET MONEY team, joins us, and President Obama talked about a number of proposals last night.

What do you think is actually likely to be enacted? What's likely to happen? 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Adam Davidson joins us from our bureau in New York. Always nice to have you on the program.

ADAM DAVIDSON: Thanks, Neal, great to be here.

CONAN: And last night, the president went back through a little bit of history, all the way back to a year ago and said wait a minute, that horrible bank bailout bill that, well, everybody loved as much as a root canal, that actually started with the previous administration. We were following their policies.

DAVIDSON: Yes, and there was an awful lot in the beginning of yesterday's State of the Union. It was interesting that it started, really, with him basically saying hey, it's the previous guy's fault. Dont blame me. I'm just I was handed this horrible, horrible situation.

His previous most-important economic speech of late was a Brookings Institution speech about a month or so ago where he jokingly said that, right before he right before January 20 of last year, he tried to call for a recount because he wasn't sure he wanted the job anymore because the economy was so awful.

But yeah, I mean, that clearly was message number one: Hey, not my fault.

CONAN: Not my fault, and well, we needed to get another trillion in debt because we needed to juice the economy to get jobs going again, and well, then he called for a second jobs program, as we just heard.

DAVIDSON: Right, and I should say we don't actually know anything about that jobs program, other than that he's calling for one. We're told, from the administration, that tomorrow there'll be a big speech and we're going to begin to get the specifics. You know, I think we know that this president tends to set broad goals and then asks Congress to come up with the specifics.

That probably has not been a resounding success, you know, when you think about health care and bank regulation and other issues. So I'm not 100 percent sure he's going to follow that model, but we're told we'll at least get a sense of what this new jobs program is tomorrow. So we can guess and wonder, but we don't know right now.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. Sara's(ph) calling from Chouteau in Oklahoma.

SARA (Caller): Hi, how are you?

CONAN: I'm good, thanks.

SARA: I love your show, by the way.

CONAN: Oh, thank you.

SARA: I just don't know if they can pass anything. I'm hopeful. I think that they can, but I have to wonder, are they just going to pass something because we're desperate for it? You know, is it really going to be the best thing that they're going to get through? I mean, we have so many other problems that they have not even begun to solve, you know, and we need to start with the job market, I agree, but are we going to be able to have a solid answer to this, or is just going to be pushed through because it's what we need, or is it not going to happen at all because they're stubborn and prideful?

CONAN: Well, those are all good questions that a lot of people here in Washington are asking. Adam Davidson, can you help Sara out?

DAVIDSON: Well, one thing we know for sure is they are stubborn and prideful. So that's definite.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Completely unlike those of us in the media.

DAVIDSON: Right. I feel like there's a set phrase that you could just repeat, whether it's a Republican or a Democrat. It's just Jobs 101 for that politicians never acknowledge.

SARA: Right.

DAVIDSON: First of all, there's not that much a president or Congress can do to actually create jobs for the long term. I mean, sure the president can say we're going to spend $7 million on this and $300 million on that, and we're going to create green jobs or whatever, but he has to fund that, and there's not that many ways he can fund it.

He can use modern-day taxes, you know, current-day taxes, but what that does is take money from some other part of the economy and put it into, you know, the green sector or whatever, but that money would have been spent. Those $7 million would have been spent in that other sector, and that would have created different jobs.

So he can change which jobs there are but not really add jobs. The president can borrow, and Congress can, borrow from the future by increasing the debt, and you know...

CONAN: Boy, that's popular.

DAVIDSON: Yeah, and that's what they've been doing lately, but you know, and that certainly could goose jobs in the short run, but there's a hot debate among economists whether that is a long-run strategy.

And then the other option, which has always been popular, is you can just create inflation. You can just, you know, basically cheapen the value of the dollar, and that...

SARA: And I don't think we can afford to do that anymore.

DAVIDSON: Right, that wouldn't be a popular move, and anyway, the Fed doesn't have a lot of wiggle room. I mean, they you know, they have interest rates at basically zero. They can't go much lower than that. I mean, they can't go lower than that.

CONAN: No, not lower than zero.

DAVIDSON: So there's not much more they can do. So I think there's a realistic look, that they are limited in what they can do. I would say the main idea, the fiscal stimulus idea, is, you know, probably one of the most hotly debated issues in economics and probably the things that divides left-wing and right-wing economists, and it's, you know, I think an untested theory.

We're not really sure if fiscal stimulus works in the long run, although you could certainly get plenty of Nobel Prize-winning economists like Paul Krugman to say no, no, we do know, it does work. But you could get other Nobel Prize-winning economists saying no, we don't know. It doesn't work.

So that is what they have been trying to date, but I agree with the caller that I find it very unlikely that Congress has an appetite for several hundred billion dollars more in deficit spending to create jobs.

So that leaves them to current-day spending, you know, taxes, and that doesn't create jobs. That just changes which jobs exist, and...

CONAN: Tax revenues is what you're talking about.

DAVIDSON: Yeah, I mean, they get taxes from some other part of the economy and put it to what they and switch it over to what they think it should be.

CONAN: Okay.


CONAN: Sara, thanks very much for the call. Let's go next to this is Steve(ph), and Steve's with us from North Franklin in Connecticut.

STEVE (Caller): Hi, Neal, this is Steve. Just a couple of quick things. I like many of the things the president said last night, and as far as trying to increase jobs, building more nuclear power plants that are effective and safe as Europe has, and offshore drilling, especially for gas.

But my concern is you know, the lady who took the call said do you think these things are going to pass? Well, her guess or your guess is as good as mine. It all depends on if the effect of the lobbyists in different areas is going to be minimized.

He talked about that. Those things never seem to happen. We have a country that's run by lobbyists, and everything that's done goes in the direction of the most powerful one. That's what we have to be careful of.

One other quick thing. I would like one of your guests to explain to me: Why is it correct for people with student loans to get, to be forgiven after 20 years, which is bad enough, but then if you work in the public sector, you're forgiven after 10 years? That makes no sense to me. Thank you, I'll take your answers offline.

CONAN: All right. Steve, thanks very much. Can you help him out first on that student loan question?

DAVIDSON: I mean, that's a political that's not my specialty.

CONAN: And it is politics. Yeah, it's just saying it's going to make it easier for people to go to college.

DAVIDSON: Yeah, I mean, there is an argument that if you create a lot of incentives for education, you are going to have economic growth in the long run. Finland, for example, famously turned itself from a very poor country into a very rich country simply by providing for education of every one of its citizens. Well, that's not the only reason, but that's a big part of the reason. Yeah, I mean, there is economic sense to it.

CONAN: Does is the caller right to suspect that the impulse to build new nuclear power plants is going to go ahead? There hasn't been a new one built since Three Mile Island, and that's before a lot of people in our audience were born.

DAVIDSON: I don't know anything about that. What I will say, though, the thing I do know a little bit about is the fiscal stimulus idea, which has nothing to do with which I just want to emphasize is the theory that comes from John Maynard Keynes is the government needs to spend money. It doesn't matter how it spends money.

I mean, sure, if it's going to spend $700 billion, it's better if it spends it on things that are good than if it spends it on things that are bad, roughly speaking. Obviously, there's debate about what's good and bad.

CONAN: Sure.

DAVIDSON: But it doesn't matter. If you want to create jobs through deficit spending, you just want to spend money quickly. I mean, I heard the joke that you should just, you know, distribute gift certificates at Debtors Anonymous meetings or something just to because those people are going to spend it very, very quickly.

So whether it's spent on nuclear radiation or a mission to the moon or, you know, whatever else, that's how you create jobs.

CONAN: Well, the president talked last night about how the real generator of jobs in the economy is small business, and he outlined some ideas on that - tax credits and that sort of thing to stimulate small-business development. Businesses that he said have survived this economic storm are now ready to grow, and well, he would divert some of that money from the big, bad banks to the good, small banks so they can loan it to those businesses.

DAVIDSON: And I do think that's where your caller's comment on lobbyists does come in because we do have an economic system that I think most people would agree is tilted towards bigness. I mean, the president is absolutely right -most people work for small business; most job creation is in small business. Small business clearly is the backbone of the American economy. It is the, you know, the - our path to the future, because any big company like Google or whatever was a small business at some point and then grew and grew and grew. We really need small business.

But the people who control lobbying tend to be big business. And as a general rule in America, the people who call the shots in Washington with money is the business that was big 10 years ago still has money but has kind of lost it, so lost being the cool and new exciting thing. So Microsoft in the '80s and '90s doesn't have a big presence in Washington, but then...

CONAN: Or AOL, maybe. Yeah.

DAVIDSON: Or AOL. But now that they're - they have a lot of money but they're not really the hot thing anymore, now they go to Washington and try and bend the rules in their favor. So that is an area where you really do worry about lobbyists tilting the rules in favor of bigness. And definitely the banks have that, with bank regulation, that's tilted in favor of bigness and against smallness. But I don't think see anything the president is doing or any president has done to really change that. That's a big battle that nobody has taken on that I'm aware of.

CONAN: And, finally, the president's general description of the economy as it stands now: Beginning to grow, the worst of the storm is over, companies are hiring again. Yes, of course, we still have 10 percent unemployment and that's a figure that's, well, economically and politically very difficult for him. But is he right that we're beginning to come out of this?

DAVIDSON: I think that the general mainstream view among the economists, the forecast for 2010, 2011 is growth, but slow, miserable growth, not the kind of robust growth you really need after a recession like this to start feeling like things are changing. The general prediction is, yes, the economy as a whole will grow but so will unemployment, more people will be laid off. It's going to be most likely, we don't know - economists are often wrong - but most likely it's going to be a better year than last year but a bad year. And 2011 will probably be a bad year as well. And that's going to be really tough politically for the president.

CONAN: It is. Adam Davidson, thanks as always for your time.

DAVIDSON: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Adam Davidson joined us from our bureau in New York. He's part of NPR's Planet Money team. You can visit their work and see what they're talking about at our Web site. That's at npr@org. And he joined us from our bureau in New York.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

And last night the president renewed a commitment to filling - fulfilling one of his campaign promises, overturning Don't Ask Don't Tell.

President BARACK OBAMA: This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.

CONAN: The president cannot do that alone, however. It will take more than promises to actually get that to happen.

Joining us now to talk about how this might get done is NPR congressional correspondent David Welna. David, nice to have you with us.

DAVID WELNA: Hi, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: And the president said he would work with Congress and the military. First of all, some people think he could just do this with an executive order.

WELNA: Not so, because in 1993, Congress actually passed a law saying that Don't Ask Don't Tell would be the official policy of the Pentagon, which meant that gays could serve in the military - they would not be asked about it, they could not tell about it. But if it came out that they were gay, then they would have to leave. But prior to that, it had simply been a regulation of the Pentagon that gays couldn't serve in the military, but there was nothing statutory about it. Because it was an act of Congress, it will take an act of Congress to undo it.

CONAN: So an act of Congress has to be repealed or some sort of new bill written. What's the prospect of that happening - and I guess we have to point out - in an election year?

WELNA: That's true. Right now, it looks like the plan is this, that there will be hearings held by the Armed Services Committees in both the Senate and House. There was supposed to have been a hearing on Don't Ask Don't Tell, the very first one in the Senate Armed Services Committee today. But the White House and the Pentagon asked the chairman, Carl Levin, who supports the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, to postpone that a bit to give a little space for the president to talk about it last night.

Next week, we're going to have Defense Secretary Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen coming before the Senate Armed Services Committee. They're going to be talking about the defense authorization bill. But there could be questions coming up then. Right now, it looks like this meeting that was supposed to happen today, the hearing, will happen two weeks from today.

But you can see that there's a certain momentum gathering here. Now, the other thing that would have to happen is that President Obama would have to take the initiative to make specific legislative recommendations to Congress on repealing the language of Don't Ask Don't Tell, and replacing it with a policy of nondiscrimination against gays and lesbians. That is what those who are seeking the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell are looking for. And they're saying the vehicle for that is the defense authorization bill. It's what sets policy for the Pentagon. We have two wars going on. They think if that were put onto that piece of legislation, it would be very hard for members of Congress, even in an election year, to vote against it.

CONAN: Defense authorization bill usually referred to as a must-pass bill. But a lot of the congressional reaction to this is going to depend on the reaction of the brass at the Pentagon. And the Army chief of staff, General George Casey, was asked about this today, about whether the Army is ready for such a change. And he said, quote, "What you heard last night was the beginning of a process," which did not sound like a ringing endorsement.

WELNA: No. I think that we don't have uniformity in thinking at the Pentagon about this. There are indications that other members in the Pentagon brass are more open to the idea. I think a lot of the thinking will be aired in the hearings that are coming up. We're going to have panels that will include some of the very top people at the Pentagon.

But I think that there is a sense that the president has now made a very public call for the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell. This is the first time he has gone before Congress. This is his third appearance in a joint session of Congress, but the very first time that he mentioned his repeated campaign pledge of repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell. And it was significant that he started out that sentence - this year. He didn't set a deadline of this year, but he said this year.

CONAN: Start to work this year.

WELNA: Exactly.

CONAN: In any case, some of his, at least at one-time, supporters in the gay and lesbian among gay and lesbians, little disappointed there weren't more concrete steps and maybe another deadline too. In any case, thanks very much, David Welna. We appreciate your time.

WELNA: You're quite welcome, Neal.

CONAN: David Welna is NPR's congressional correspondent with us today from the NPR Senate booth.

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