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What to Expect From The President


This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, Pope Benedict XVI surprised the world when he announced his resignation yesterday, so we decided to talk about some of the issues facing the church worldwide and to see if there are any potential papal candidates from the developing world, which is where most Catholics actually live. That's coming up later in the program.

But first, we want to focus on a big event in American politics. President Obama is delivering his first State of the Union address since his reelection. And in the run-up to this speech, there's been a lot of speculation - and, let's face it, unsolicited advice - about what the president should do with this address, the first he will deliver without the burden of having to run for office again.

So we decided to call upon two regular contributors this morning, who both spend a lot of time helping to craft presidential messages. Paul Orzulak joins us in our Washington, D.C. studio. He's a former speechwriter for President Clinton, and he worked with Vice President Al Gore during his presidential bid. He's now founding partner of West Wing Writers.

Ron Christie joined us from our bureau in New York. He's a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush. He's now president of the media and political strategy firm Christie Strategies. Welcome back to you both. Thanks for joining us.

PAUL ORZULAK: Thanks, Michel.

RON CHRISTIE: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: So before we get started, let's go back and hear a little bit from President Obama's 2012 State of the Union Address. Here it is.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The state of our union is getting stronger, and we've come too far to turn back now. As long as I'm president, I will work with anyone in this chamber to build on this momentum. But I intend to fight obstruction with action, and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place.

MARTIN: So, Paul, back then that was kind of interpreted as his bring-it-on speech. He had been criticized by a lot of people in his party - particularly progressives - for being too accommodationist. This was the moment in which he seemed to be signaling that that's all done now. Now that he's won reelection, what do you hope he will do?

ORZULAK: If your State of the Union drinking game includes the words jobs or middle class tonight, you're in for a really long night. You know, the president was reportedly surprised that the coverage from his inaugural address was about social issues - immigration, gay rights, guns, climate change. So this shift tonight is full-force back to the economy.

It's a focus back on middle class families from the debt and deficits that we've been talking about here for months. And he's really reestablished on the grounds that he really got reelected and ran on, and I think that's where we're going to see a lot of talk about jobs, long-term growth and getting the economy back strong for everybody.

MARTIN: So, on a policy sense, you think it'll be a lot of focus on the economy. What about tonally?

ORZULAK: Tonally, I hope he does not do what he's done four times before, which is try to bring us together. We've heard that. The other party doesn't really want to play that game right now. What we really need is an honest discussion of the real differences between both parties on these issues, because it plays to his strengths. Congress has a 20 percent approval rating right now. The president was reelected overwhelmingly running on these issues. The more he can articulate the difference in a way that benefits him, the stronger he's going to be the next year.

MARTIN: Ron Christie, what about you?

CHRISTIE: Wow, Paul, I'm really surprised...

MARTIN: As a member of the loyal opposition.

CHRISTIE: Yeah. I'm really surprised to hear you say that. The president wasn't overwhelmingly reelected. He received almost five million votes less this time than he did before. The president is a unifier. He's supposed to bring the country together. This is not supposed to be partisan politics. This is supposed to be the president of the United States giving the state of the country, not giving the state of the Democratic Party.

And to hear you suggest that perhaps he shouldn't be trying to unite us, I think, is wrong. This is America. We are supposed to come together as Americans to solve the vexing issues of the day. And what I hope to hear from the president this evening is how he will work with those in Congress of his own party or the opposition party to reduce the deficit, to strengthen the economy, and to move us forward. That's what we need from our president.

MARTIN: But, wait. Can I just ask Ron Christie about this? Did your - did the president you served, the administration you served do that? I mean, didn't they use their State of the Union address to delineate clear policies, clear points of view?

CHRISTIE: Yes. President Bush, however, never sought to divide people on race, sex, class or gender or economic status. Never. And he used his 2005 State of the Union address after his reelection to talk about entitlement reform, to talk about Social Security, to making sure that all people, regardless of their income or their race or their ethnicity, had to have the opportunity to have a piece of the American Dream. But to have the chance on your first State of the Union after your reelection to try to seek to divide the country, I think, is wrong.


ORZULAK: I'm not talking about dividing the country. Let's be honest, Ron. Everybody knows that the president, for four years, has been about unity, to the point where he sounded naive talking about unity with a Congress that clearly didn't want to play along with that. His first State of the Union four years ago talked about post-partisan America and bringing us together and uniting around these big challenges we face. And that message lasted 12 hours, until Senator Mitch McConnell said their main goal was to make sure the president wasn't going to be reelected. And every single Republican voted against any program he put forward to create jobs or reduce the deficit.

Unity has its place. We want to bring the country together, but we have real choices to face here. And I think what the president was successful in doing in the election was to say: Here's their plan. Here's my plan. Which do you like? And he was reelected with a mandate, and he's going to affect that mandate when he goes in.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about President Obama's State of the Union address. We're speaking with former White House speechwriter Paul Orzulak and Republican strategist and former White House communications strategist Ron Christie.

So, Ron, you know, to Paul's point, though, Ron, the president was criticized by - mainly by progressives for giving up too much in negotiations with the GOP in his first term. And it does not appear that that won any Republican support for his agenda.

So what incentive does the president have to pursue this kind of - this goal of bipartisanship now? Why should he?

CHRISTIE: Because you're bigger than the job that you serve. In other words, you're not the president of the Democratic Party. You're the president of the United States, and you're supposed to work on behalf of those who didn't vote for you just the same as you're supposed to work for those who did vote for you.

And he has an obligation. When he started in office, there were 32 million people on food stamps. Now there are 47 million. If you look at the number of people who are either unemployed, underemployed or otherwise out of work, the number has gone up dramatically in his term. So this isn't a question of his seeking to appease the progressive base or the Democratic base. It's what can he do in the most powerful position in the world to work with those in Congress to get America back on track? Because we're clearly not on track.

MARTIN: But just one - briefly, before I turn to Paul, though. But didn't - isn't the first thing that President George W. Bush said upon his reelection, and I quote, "I have earned my political capital, and now I'm going to use it." How is that different?

CHRISTIE: Because President Bush always believed in unifying Americans, and he had political capital that he intended to use. This president waged a campaign seeking to divide people based on race, class, gender and economic status that President George W. Bush never did and would never do.


ORZULAK: Well, Ron, I think the American people disagree with that. I mean, the Pew Center came out with a new poll last week that showed that they uniformly believe that your party has been about exactly those kind of tactics over the last four years. To me, the more interesting question is: Which Republican Party are we dealing with?

It's almost like Israel. They can't decide whether to negotiate with Hamas or with the Palestinian authority. You know, we have two responses to the State of the Union tonight. Why two? We have Marco Rubio. We have Rand Paul. We're going to have Ted Nugent in the gallery. Talk about saying incendiary things about the president and the country. So which Republican Party is it that the president is going to partner with over the next four years? Is it the one of Rand Paul, Marco Rubio or is it the Ted Nugent crowd?

MARTIN: Well, to that end, though...

CHRISTIE: Well, I take great offense, Michel.


CHRISTIE: I take great offense to the Republican Party being characterized as either Hamas or Hezbollah. Sir, those are two terrorist organizations who murder innocent people. The GOP is not murdering people. So I resent your assertion that the GOP is either affiliated with Hamas, Hezbollah or otherwise.

ORZULAK: That's not what I said, Ron. You know that.

CHRISTIE: No, that is exactly what you said.


CHRISTIE: And I take great offense to it. You should be better than that. Shame.

MARTIN: Well, all right. Paul, to Ron's point, though, some of these people have votes, and the president, doesn't he have to negotiate with people in order to get some of his agenda forward? I mean, he has a majority in the Senate. The Democrats have a majority in the Senate, but they don't control the House. He doesn't have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. So doesn't he have to find some votes with the opposition party, whether they call him names or not?

ORZULAK: Of course he does. And I think a stronger, more principled, feistier president is something that - it's nice to see. You know, for four years, he's extended an olive branch, and the other side has reached out with a flame and set it on fire each time. They have absolutely no interest in finding common ground. So negotiating from a position of strength - the American people clearly support his positions on these issues, and you know, we have to - we need to go forward with bringing the focus back on middle class families, on what families need to succeed and prosper today, and I feel like, that we've gotten too far away from that with all the focus on budgets and deficits and debt limits and sequesters and fiscal cliffs and all the things that dominate conversation here.

CHRISTIE: Let's get it back on the things that matter, and that's what we're going to have the president talk about tonight.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, we have to ask each of you about the rebuttals. Ron, of course we want to ask you about Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio. He has been asked to give his party's response to the speech tonight, and I was just wondering why you think he was chosen and what do you think his job is tonight?

CHRISTIE: I think Senator Rubio is the future of the Republican Party. In order for us to win, politics is about addition and not subtraction. If the Republican Party can't attract younger voters, people of color, women, and people who are gay, we're going to lose, and I think Senator Rubio is a younger, more refreshing voice of the future for the GOP, and I expect what we'll hear him say is, he'll outline a vision of economic security, making sure that we can balance the budget, making sure that we can pay our debts, and also making sure that we have enough money for critical resources here at home, as well as projecting a strong foreign presence abroad.

MARTIN: But what about Paul's point about the divisions within the Republican Party. I mean there's yet another rebuttal to the rebuttal. The Kentucky senator, Rand Paul, is going to give an address, speaking on behalf of the Tea Party, following in the footsteps of Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and former presidential candidate Herman Cain, who previously gave those alterative addresses.

Is that a good idea?

CHRISTIE: I don't think it's a good idea. I think it's important to have a Tea Party caucus and to allow people who share the sense that their taxed enough already to have an outlet. But the Republican response should be given by one individual and that individual is Senator Rubio. And I think Rand Paul is going to clutter the message rather than unify the message for the GOP.

MARTIN: Paul, final thought from you on the Rubio pick. Why do you think he was chosen and what do you think is job is?

ORZULAK: I think it's a brilliant choice. I mean he's the most articulate young Republican member of Congress, appeals to Latinos. What we saw in this past election is on immigration, on guns, on climate change, on jobs to a degree, this is a party, Republican Party's on the wrong side of history. They realized that, they realize they need to make a lot of changes in order to be a majority party again, or to not relegate themselves to being a minority party for the next generation.

Marco Rubio is probably the best opportunity they have to restart the conversation, and it's the best decision that they've made all year.

MARTIN: That was Paul Orzulak. He's a former speech writer for President Clinton and he worked with Vice President Al Gore during his presidential bid. He's now founding partner of West Wing Writers. He was with us in Washington, D.C. With us from New York, Republican strategist Ron Christie. He's a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, President George W. Bush and the president of his strategy and communications firm, Christie Strategies. Thank you both so much for joining us.

ORZULAK: Thanks, Michelle.

CHRISTIE: Thanks, Michelle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.