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Economy To Dominate Obama's Speech To Congress

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Tonight, President Barack Obama outlines his policies and goals before a joint session of Congress. And while it's not an official State Of The Union address, it will sound like one. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs says President Obama will talk about health care, energy, jobs, education and deficit reduction. And Gibbs says it won't be all economic gloom and doom.

ROBERT GIBBS: This president doesn't need a lecture about hope - we've done that before, we'll do that again. We understand there are brighter days ahead.

BLOCK: That's Robert Gibbs, speaking this morning on NBC's "Today" show. Joining me now is NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. And Mara, this is a long list of big problems the president wants to tackle at once. How is he going to explain the need to do it simultaneously and now?

MARA LIASSON: Well, the White House is rightly concerned about the ability of the system to handle this much change at once - or to afford this much change. And there are signs of bailout fatigue. But as the president has said more than once, he believes that these problems are all interconnected - whether they're health care and deficit reduction, energy independence and foreign policy, education and economic growth. And as he says over and over again, we can't solve any of them if we don't try to solve all of them.

NORRIS: the stimulus plan, which is still controversial; the housing plan; the bank bailout, which is still a work in progress.

BLOCK: And just ahead of this speech, there's a whole raft of public opinion polls that've been coming. What do they show?

LIASSON: Well, they're very positive. He has high job-approval ratings. He's in the mid-60s - higher than George W. Bush or Bill Clinton was around this time, about where Reagan was at the beginning of his term. The polls also show, however, the possibility for a populist backlash to the bailouts. By big margins, the New York Times poll says the financial bailout will benefit bankers, not America - all Americans, ordinary Americans. And people are opposed to giving any more money to the auto companies. And, you know, last week you had this rant on CNBC by Rick Santelli, which got tremendous play on the Internet, saying that the housing plan was going to bail out the losers. The White House pushed back very, very hard against him specifically, because they're rightly worried.

They want the president to be in sync with populist anger, not on the receiving end. So, it is important how he explains all these things. Today in the USA Today poll, 54 percent of people approved of government, quote, temporarily taking over major banks in danger of failing. But 57 percent disapproved of, quote, temporarily nationalizing major banks. So, it really matters how you say it. Words matter. This is a president who understands that.

BLOCK: And what words, specifically, do we expect to hear from President Obama?

LIASSON: Well, I think one thing you're going to hear tonight is, he's going to put health-care reform not so much in the context of an expansion of rights - universal coverage - but as an economic issue. Getting health-care costs under control, I think you will hear him say, is necessary if we're going to return to fiscal responsibility. And Obama's Budget Director, Peter Orszag, says over and over again, health-care reform is entitlement reform. You can't have fiscal responsibility without doing health-care reform. Another specific thing I think you'll hear him say tonight is that he inherited the trillion-dollar deficit from George W. Bush. He wants to place the blame squarely on his predecessor there.

BLOCK: And another big question for tonight is tone. We heard Robert Gibbs addressing this notion of how hopeful this message will be.

LIASSON: It's a big balancing act. As soon as he was elected, he made a very deliberate effort to bring expectations down, to talk about how bad things were. As soon as he was inaugurated, he wanted to create this sense of urgency and crisis so Congress would pass a stimulus plan, and it worked. Polls show people are very patient, but they're also very concerned. I think that the president does have the ability to keep Americans' spirits up. He wants to do that tonight - he keeps on saying he's an eternal optimist. But he is a sober, serious guy. These are sober, serious times. He's not really a happy warrior, but I do think he's going to try to send a message of optimism tonight.

BLOCK: Okay, and the Republican response tonight from Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you, Melissa.

LIASSON: NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Melissa Block
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
Mara Liasson
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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