MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR news. I'm Michel Martin. The State of the Union speech has been a big deal in Washington, D.C. for years. Lawmakers gather hours in advance for a prime seat and interest groups spent hours afterwards cranking out their responses.
But we wanted to hear how President Obama's speech was received by people outside of the Beltway. So we've gathered up a roundtable of journalists from across the country to find out. Christopher Ave is back with us. He's political editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Welcome back. Thanks for joining us.
CHRISTOPHER AVE: Hey, Michel. Great to be here.
MARTIN: Rachel Stassen-Berger is the state political reporter at the Star Tribune in Minnesota. Welcome back to you. Thank you for coming.
RACHEL STASSEN-BERGER: Thanks for inviting me.
MARTIN: And Michael Smolens is government editor at U-T San Diego, formally the San Diego Union Tribune. Michael, welcome back to you. Thank you for coming.
MICHAEL SMOLENS: Thanks. It's great to be here.
MARTIN: So let me just start by asking each of you your overall kind of top line response. Christopher Ave, do you want to start?
AVE: Sure. You know, as far as tone, I thought it was very impressive and deft. I mean, he was confident. It was echoes of Reagan or even FDR in his - the body language when he walked in, the way he was high-fiving and kissing.
And then when he got into the bulk of the speech, the way that he hit his cues and made his jokes and made his points, I thought was quite good. The content, by contrast, I thought was a bit all over the place. I think he was trying to do a balancing act and I'm not sure how successful it was.
MARTIN: OK. Well, let's dig into some of the substance later. I want to hear from the other guests, as well. Rachel Stassen-Berger, your initial thoughts?
STASSEN-BERGER: That's right. It's not that we heard a widely different course from the president than we've heard before. He punched the same things that he had stressed before. He just had a different attitude about getting them done.
MARTIN: Did you like it?
STASSEN-BERGER: I certainly thought there were points that were really interesting when he talked about the son of the barkeep and sort of put the speaker of the house in an uncomfortable position. And the ending part when he talked about the veteran and his struggle, as I tweeted last night, you had to be made of stone if that didn't affect you a little bit.
MARTIN: Michael, how about you?
SMOLENS: Well, I think the president correctly read the public that they just want Washington to get things done and to work. And that year of action really played into that. Whether the year of action through executive order is something that people will cut into or whether it will be that effective given the limited reach of executive orders remains to be seen. But I think in that tone, you know, when we had the government shutdown averted the second time last year, it was a big sigh of relief. So people want, I think, Washington to get out of the way and just start working.
MARTIN: Well, let's talk about some of the substance. I mean, Michael, you mentioned the year of action. You know, the president, as was anticipated focused a lot the whole question of income inequality. And he said he was going to do his part by raising the minimum wage for federal contractors. And here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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.
MARTIN: And then of course the president asked Congress to follow suit and raise the minimum wage overall. And he also exhorted private employers, you know, to do their part. So, you know, Rachel, the president gave some love to Minnesota and he highlighted a small business owner John Serrano? Right? Do I have that right, of...
STASSEN-BERGER: That's right, from Punch Pizza.
MARTIN: ...Of Punch Pizza, who raised his worker's wage to $10 an hour voluntarily. And he was exhorting people to follow suit. So, Rachel, I'm really curious about how this - how that decision is already being received in Minnesota.
STASSEN-BERGER: That's right. In - here in Minnesota, we have a continuing minimum wage debate. As you know, the capital is all controlled by Democrats. but last year they did not raise the minimum wage in Minnesota from one of the lowest in the country. And, frankly, there's not that much faith that the federal government is going to raise the minimum wage nationwide. And so a lot of Democrats here in Minnesota, including our governor, said the state has to do the right thing and raise the minimum wage.
MARTIN: Are they going to? I mean what is it - what I guess I'm wondering is if - does the president's kind of exhortation have any weight?
STASSEN-BERGER: Well, it certainly helps. I mean, anytime the president picks up on one of the issues that is hot in your state, you're going to be hearing about it. So advocates of raising the minimum wage certainly cheered. And, you know, advocates of pizza certainly cheered to hear one of our hometown greats be mentioned by the president. And so it will play into that. But I don't know that it necessarily changes the minds of people who were - are against raising the minimum wage for various reasons or frankly some of the details that, you know, state lawmakers and the governor will have to get down into when they talk about raising the wage statewide.
MARTIN: Christopher Ave, what about you? How is this debate proceeding in Missouri? It's interesting 'cause where we are, in the Washington D.C. area, the local government's there. Which tend to be very heavily democratically controlled. Even though we are - you know, Virginia is one of the states that the local government's acting in concert all agreed, at once, to raise the local minimum wage - those that had the authority to do so. In part because they kind of wanted to remove the idea of any competitive disadvantage. So, Christopher Ave, how is this debate playing in Missouri right now?
AVE: Well, first I've got to agree with Rachel. If Obama could capture the support of the supporters of pizza then I think he would really be doing well. Here in Missouri and in Illinois - both of which we cover - have higher minimum wage rates than the federal rate, although in Missouri, it's only a quarter higher. I think that polling has shown that raising it higher is a popular idea, unlikely to happen by legislative action in Missouri because Republicans control the legislator.
And largely they are against further increases. But there is a drive among Democrats to get it on the ballot so that the people might vote and that would be interesting to see. In Illinois, Governor Quinn is running for reelection. It's going to be a tough fight. He has made raising the minimum wage to $10 in Illinois a centerpiece of his campaign. So he really feels like it's got support and that he can derive momentum from it.
MARTIN: Michael, what about you? What about in California?
SMOLENS: Well, California - the California legislator, which is heavily Democratic, and the Governor Brown, of course, is a Democrat raised the minimum wage last year. It first kicks - the first phase kicks in in July and then in 2016. So it's a very popular thing out here. We're seeing local governments, the interim mayor of San Diego and other cities are talking about even speeding ahead of the state minimum wage and putting something on the ballot in November. One of the things that struck me on that issue and actually some other ones we can talk about that I saw a lot of California being, frankly, ahead of the president's agenda on a number of issues, including minimum wage.
STASSEN-BERGER: I think we saw that here in Minnesota, as well. The president talked about early childhood education. That's something that Minnesota has focused on. Some of the opportunity agenda points Minnesota, because it is democratically controlled, has also been putting some effort into.
MARTIN: You know, one of the things that was striking to me - I wondered if you all noticed this as well - was that one of the things that really fired people up on both sides of the aisle was when President Obama said - talked about women workers, female workers, still being paid less than men for the same work. Here's that clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)
OBAMA: It is time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a "Mad Men" episode. This year, let's all come together - Congress, the White House, businesses from Wall Street to Main Street - to give every woman the opportunity she deserves because I believe when women succeed, America succeeds.
MARTIN: I mean, people were fist pumping up there. They were, you know - it was like the Super Bowl. And I was curious about how you all react to that. Rachel, do you want to start?
STASSEN-BERGER: Well, I'd say one of the questions here in Minnesota and probably across the nation is, whose job is it to make sure that women get equal pay for equal work? Is it the federal government's job, or is it something that private employers should take care of and the marketplace will take care of? I mean, there is still a very independent streak in a lot of businesses, and they wonder if the feds moving forward on this is something that would be appropriate or inappropriate and how it would affect their business.
MARTIN: Well, what - do you feel - do you have a sense of the - do you have kind of a sense of what's the center of gravity where you are on this question?
STASSEN-BERGER: Well, certainly. In Minnesota, for the last several decades, it's something that lawmakers, particularly Democratic lawmakers, have concentrated on. You know, but if you look at Minnesota, any stat you look at, women are not equal to men in the workplace, even if you look at our legislature. We're one of the best in the country in terms of female representation, but it's still a third of the legislature. So it's not something that voters have moved on, and the legislature themselves can't claim any great victories there.
MARTIN: Christopher, how did you read this? I was curious because, you know, there was this whole kind of subplot around which party is more supportive of women. And as, of course, I think most people who follow politics know that the Republicans have been noted for making a number of particularly difficult verbal missteps on this in recent years.
For example, in, you know, 2012, former Congressman Todd Akin made some comments about how legitimate rape doesn't lead to pregnancy, and this was perceived as extremely damaging to his candidacy. And there have been a number of recent comments by even people who - like Mike Huckabee who is otherwise popular, who has made comments along these lines. And so, Christopher, how did you read the president's remarks and the response to it?
AVE: Well, I think that it was a smart remark for the president to make. I agree with Rachel. I am not sure that people have thought through what the federal government's role needs to be in income equality. But, I mean, A, appealing to "Mad Men" addicts like myself I thought was brilliant because it is the best show on TV. But beyond that, I think that I think that certainly, in Missouri, we've seen, you know, as you mentioned, former Congressman Todd Akin just self-destruct with that incredible, unbelievable comment about rape and pregnancy. And it really did, pretty much in 15 seconds, hand that election to the incumbent Claire McCaskill.
So but on the other hand, you notice that the first Republican response - I know we'll probably get to this later - but the first Republican response delivered by a woman. And it was sort of in a female member of Congress, soft focus, living room sort of setting - lots of smiling and warmth emanating from the screen on that I thought was definitely an attempt by the Republicans to say, hey, hey, we are for women as well. They know they're vulnerable on this topic.
MARTIN: All right, well, Christopher, why don't you finish your thought, and then, Michael, we'll get your comments on this after we take our short break. So, Christopher, how do you feel that those - the way that each party is playing this is playing where you are?
AVE: Well, I know in my own house my full-time working mother wife was very enthused to hear the president's comments on that. I think it probably went over well with lots of families and lots of people. On the other hand, I think the Republicans now know that they must appeal to more women, or they will not have a good future at the polls. And so it will be interesting to see how this plays out in terms of policy. Again, I'm not sure how exactly one eliminates that gap in income between men and women. We'll see which party has the best ideas.
MARTIN: We need to take a short break. When we come back, we'll hear from Michael Smolens on this. He's government editor at U-T San Diego, formerly the San Diego Tribune. Michael, we didn't forget you.
MARTIN: And we're not discriminating against you because you're a man.
MARTIN: I promise you that. We're also visiting with Rachel Stassen-Berger, state political reporter at the Star Tribune in Minnesota, and Christopher Ave, political editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. More on the president's State of the Union address with our roundtable of reporters from across the country. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and we hope you'll stay with us.
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