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Politics In The News: State Of The Union Preview


Present Obama delivers his final State of Union speech this week. That speech to Congress is an annual Democratic ritual and a concrete reminder that the president is beginning his final lap around the track. Let's talk about this moment with Cokie Roberts, who joins us most Mondays. Hi, Cokie.


INSKEEP: And also with NPR's Ron Elving. Ron, good morning to you.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's the president likely to talk about?

ROBERTS: Well, yesterday he sent his chief of staff out to talk - say that he would be talking about broad themes, not the usual laundry list of policy proposals. Although, we can expect to hear something about climate change, probably, or immigration, gun control, income inequality. But there's some recognition here that he's not going to get specific proposals through Congress. But really what struck me, Steve, was the contrast the administration is drawing with the rhetoric on the political campaign. It's much more positive. McDonough - Denis McDonough was stressing yesterday the jobs numbers - almost 300,000 created last month. The unemployment rate at 5 percent nearly - when it was nearly 8 percent when President Obama took office. So they're taking on the whole sort of Trump and company make-America-great-again theme, hinting that it's somewhat unpatriotic saying Republicans are running down America. And the president and the cabinet are both going to be out around the country on Wednesday to reinforce the positive idea.

INSKEEP: Well, Ron, hasn't the president faced this consistent problem for years? He says the country is moving in the right direction. He offers his numbers for that. But majorities of voters say in polls the country is not moving in the right direction.

ELVING: That's right. Most people do say the country is heading off on the wrong track. And the numbers are negative on the president's specific leadership as well, especially on terrorism and national security. But of course the people at the White House are aware of all that. In their view, the president is dealing with a full array of national problems from guns to trade to climate change from Iran to ISIS to North Korea. And they talk about a sensible long-term approach to all of these challenges. They say Obama's critics are just speaking from either partisanship or impatience.

INSKEEP: Well, we heard Cokie say that the president is not going to make specific proposals - big proposals - because he wouldn't get them through Congress anyway. Does Congress see it in its interest to pass anything of note in this election year?

ROBERTS: Well, there's a big difference in the Republican leadership on that question. Sen. McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, says basically, let's just pass all of the appropriations bills. Like, get them through. That's not exactly a very sexy theme to run on in 2016.

INSKEEP: That's just a regular government business basically. Right.

ROBERTS: Exactly. Whereas Speaker Ryan in the House says he wants to be the party of proposition not opposition. He held a poverty panel in South Carolina with some of the Republican presidential candidates over the weekend to show that they do have ideas. But there are lots of disagreements in the Republican ranks. I mean, the only thing they continue to agree on is that they want to repeal Obamacare, which they voted to do 62 times.

INSKEEP: Ron Elving.

ELVING: You know, they could pick a couple of things. They could make a deal with Obama on, say, Pacific Rim trade or criminal justice reform. But it's just as likely that, as Cokie says, they're going to pass the basic spending bills, keep the lights on and vote on a lot of stuff that they promised to their hard-core conservative voters when they got elected, especially in the primary. And let's remember that even though all that stuff's just going to get vetoed, 2016 is an election year all year long.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that election. Cokie Roberts, the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to vote, show it's pretty close between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side. Let's just talk about that side for the moment. What does it mean for Hillary Clinton that she has portrayed herself as the inevitable nominee and she faces a tough fight in the first two states?

ROBERTS: It's very tough for her. And she's been ramping up her attacks on Sanders, particularly on gun control. But she - you know, there's a lot of talk that she has a backstop in states where the more diverse population that come after Iowa and New Hampshire - and that's Nevada, South Carolina - because Sanders support is almost entirely among white people. But still it would be very, very tough for her if she loses those first two states. That aura of inevitability could be very much tarnished. And that could be a big problem for her.

INSKEEP: Can someone actually get through losing the first two states and win the nomination? That's happened. It happened with her husband, didn't it?

ROBERTS: Yes, it has happened. But it's going to be much tougher for her because there's a lot of concern about her as a candidate anyway. And we can see how that plays out for her.

INSKEEP: OK, that's NPR's Cokie Roberts and Ron Elving. Thanks to you both on this Monday morning.

ROBERTS: Thank you.

ELVING: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
Cokie Roberts was one of the 'Founding Mothers' of NPR who helped make that network one of the premier sources of news and information in this country. She served as a congressional correspondent at NPR for more than 10 years and later appeared as a commentator on Morning Edition. In addition to her work for NPR, Roberts was a political commentator for ABC News, providing analysis for all network news programming.