RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
When President Obama delivers his State of the Union message to Congress tomorrow night, he'll address a chamber filled with more opposition members than he's ever faced before, even as his approval ratings have risen in public opinion polls - that gives him some leverage with Republicans in Congress.
Joining us, as she does most Mondays, is NPR's news analyst Cokie Roberts. Good morning.
COKIE ROBERTS: Good morning, Renee. Welcome to the deep freeze.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ROBERTS: Bad time to be out of Southern California.
MONTAGNE: No, from Southern California to D.C., just in time for, you know, minus degrees.
Well, we are hearing a lot about how the president will be moving to the center in his speech tomorrow night. What exactly does that mean?
ROBERTS: Well, it means, in terms of substance, that he's going to talk about dealing with the deficit and debt in a responsible way, that's a quotation from his video released to his supporters yesterday. But in political terms, what it means is he's reaching out to those all-important independent voters who gave him a 15-point edge in 2008, and went to Republicans by eight points in 2010. So he needs them to come back to him and they seem to be doing it.
In a Wall Street Journal poll that was out at the end of last week, independents gave him higher approval than disapproval ratings for the first time since August of 2009. And that seems to be a result of the lame-duck Congress, reaching across party lines and working together, plus some afterglow from his speech in Tucson. And, of course, he'll be able to remind everyone of that tomorrow night.
It's, of course, essential to talk about the absence of Congresswoman Giffords from the hall. But we also hear from Giffords' spokesperson that some members of her medical team and the young volunteer who helped save her life will be featured guests of the president in the first lady's box.
MONTAGNE: And what about this business of having Democrats and Republicans sitting side-by-side, mingling for a change, during the speech?
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MONTAGNE: Do you think that this will make any difference?
ROBERTS: I don't think it can hurt and it's taken on this life of its own. It was the - first, the suggestion of Mark Udall, the Democratic senator from Colorado. And yesterday, Senator McCain said that Mark Udall will sit where he, McCain, usually sits and McCain will sit with Mark Udall's cousin, Tom Udall, the senator from New Mexico.
McCain points out that he has a long connection with the family. What he didn't say is that he used to go, almost every day, to visit Arizona Congressman Mo Udall, Mark's father, when Mo Udall was hospitalized for Parkinson's disease. It's definitely a reminder of a gentler time.
It has become a little bit funny with people looking for dates to sit with at the State of the Union. And some matching-up went on the Sunday talk shows yesterday. But sometimes symbolism like this can make a difference.
MONTAGNE: Yeah, though, for Republicans, even though they're talking about bipartisanship, it's becoming clear they have to bring their own people together. There are even two different responses planned for the president's State of the Union message.
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ROBERTS: Right, only one is official.
ROBERTS: Wisconsin - Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee. And his will be the one carried by broadcasters. But Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann will issue her own, on TeaPartyExpress.org. It's all part of the Republican presidential campaign for 2012.
Republicans are going to have a hard time with their new members who are expecting big changes, particularly when it comes to government spending, but who've never had the experience of having to run on a record of specifics. And that's clearly what the Democrats are setting up, both in spending cuts and in health care, forcing the Republicans to vote on specifics.
MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly, let's talk about spending. First big fight likely to come today when Republicans introduce a plan to cut federal spending back to 2008 levels, doesn't sound like a lot of room for a bipartisanship there.
ROBERTS: Right. But Democrats have to be careful. The public really is concerned about the deficit. But when it gets to specifics versus amorphous cuts, it becomes much harder. Republican leader Eric Cantor learned that yesterday. He was asked, on "Meet the Press," about cutting money for cancer research, and he didn't say no. And so by the next show up, he was quoted as being for cutting cancer research.
That's not a winning position, Renee. And that's the kind of thing Democrats are going to try to do.
MONTAGNE: Thanks very much, NPR's news analyst Cokie Roberts.
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