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Obama Speech To Set Second Term's Tone


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Renée Montagne. President Obama will deliver his State of the Union address tonight, to a joint session of Congress. The president will announce that the U.S. is withdrawing 34,000 troops from Afghanistan within a year. But as always, much of the speech will address domestic issues. As NPR's Mara Liasson reports, the president will lay out his agenda and set the tone for his battles with Congress over immigration, gun control and the budget.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The State of the Union address is the second half of a presidents opening act, says Ken Baer, a former Obama White House official.

KEN BAER: The inaugural address is sort of when you set the melody, and State of the Union is when you write the lyrics.

LIASSON: President's Obama inaugural address was notable for its assertive progressive vision for America. Michael Gerson - a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush is curious to see if tonight's speech builds on that tone or offers some olive branches to the opposition.

MICHAEL GERSON: The State of the Union is the president's moment. He's on the main stage. Everyone else in the room is a prop. It's actually really easy to take advantage of that moment and make your opponents look dour, negative, sitting on their hands. Every president does some of that. I guess the question is, though: is there going to be something surprising that says, let's start over here?

LIASSON: The White House suggests the answer is no. The president will stick to his new posture, confident that the public is behind him and that his opponents are divided. And there won't be any sweeping new policy proposals - gun control and immigration, after all, are already working their way through Congress.

But Jim Kessler of the centrist Democratic group Third Way, says tonight Mr. Obama will also get a chance to address the issue that was mostly missing from his inaugural speech.

JIM KESSLER: The President was eloquent and powerful on social justice issues in the inaugural, but he was practically silent on economic growth and budget issues. And in the State of the Union, not just Republicans, but moderate Democrats want to hear more on entitlement reform and getting the budget in decent shape.

LIASSON: But President Obama doesn't see social justice and the budget as separate issues. He told House Democrats at their retreat last week that making sure everyone has a fair shot is good economics.


LIASSON: The president said in his State of the Union address he'll be focusing on job creation and on investments in education and energy. And he'll keep the pressure on Republicans in the ongoing debate over how to replace the automatic spending cuts known as The Sequester.

The Republican plan, Mr. Obama said, cuts programs for the middle class rather than close a single tax loophole for the rich. But Kessler argues the president might need to do something more.

KESSLER: We're now heading into a situation in which the programs that the president and a lot of Democrats hold dear are going to take a beating - investments in kids, you know, college programs, climate programs, science, NASA. All those things are going to take a hit because we're still short on revenue, and we haven't touched entitlements.

LIASSON: The president told Democrats he still wants a big deal where Republicans move on revenue and Democrats move on entitlements like Medicare and Social Security, but on his own terms.


LIASSON: President Obama is clearly confident that, in his second term, he will be able to frame the debate. Michael Gerson.

GERSON: I think that reelection of the president is an adrenaline rush that most presidents feel, and they are in legacy mode. They're ambitious, and I think the president has some extraordinary things within his grasp.

LIASSON: If President Obama can add new gun laws and comprehensive immigration reform to health care reform, says Gerson, he would have a substantial presidential legacy. But not as substantial as if he makes a grand bargain wtih the Republicans on taxes and spending.

GERSON: If he doesn't get a bargain, you could see the economy bumping along at anemic growth rates with a lot of uncertainty, moving from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis, where our politics look like it's not equal to the moment. And then that restricts the ability of the president to do a lot of things.

LIASSON: A lot of things like the investments in education, infrastructure, clean energy and manufacturing that President Obama will call for tonight. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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