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On the Road, President Continues State of the Union Message of Growth

January 26, 2011 at 5:18 PM EDT
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A day after his State of the Union address focused on job creation and innovation, President Obama toured an energy technology firm to promote his economic message. Correspondent Kwame Holman recaps the day, then Gwen Ifill talks to public media reporters about how the president's message and the GOP response were received.
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JIM LEHRER: The president took his State of the Union message of winning the future on a road test today.

NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president left Washington, as presidents traditionally do the day after a State of the Union, intent on selling his vision for the future, the destination this time, Wisconsin.

Mr. Obama won the state convincingly in 2008, but it turned sharply Republican in last year’s midterm elections. The president toured a renewable energy technology plant near Green Bay and quoted former Packers head coach Vince Lombardi.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: He said, “There is no room for second place. There is only one place in my game, and that’s first place.”

That’s the kind of determination to win that America needs to show right now. That’s what we need to show.

(APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: We need to win the future.

KWAME HOLMAN: To do that, he said again the country must take responsibility for deficits, but not at the expense of investments to grow the economy.

BARACK OBAMA: We’ve also got to make sure that the breakthroughs, the technological breakthroughs, that come to define the 21st century, that they take root right here in America. We’ve got to lead the world in innovation. I spent a lot of time talking about this last night. That’s how we’ll create the jobs of the future.

That’s how we’re going to build the industries of the future, because we make smarter products using better technology than anybody else. That’s how we’ll win the future in the 21st century.

(APPLAUSE)

KWAME HOLMAN: Back in Washington, Republican lawmakers were cool to the president’s investment ideas, contending they were simply cover for more wasteful government spending. Their message to the president: Cut and grow.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia spoke today at the Heritage Foundation.

REP. ERIC CANTOR (R-Va.), House majority leader: They envision that administration to be about cut and invest, that, somehow, we have to go about cutting spending, so we can invest it from Washington somewhere else.

Now, all of that gives most of us pause, because, in using word invest in this town through the prism of the federal government, to me, means more spending.

BARACK OBAMA: This freeze will require painful cuts.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president did call last night for a five-year freeze on some domestic spending to save $400 billion over a decade. Initially, at least, the freeze idea got the cold shoulder from Republicans such as Utah Senator Orrin Hatch.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R-Utah): It’s time to cut spending, not freeze it at these bloated and unsustainable levels. Families across America have tightened their belts, balanced their budgets and lived within their means. The same can’t be said of Washington, where runaway spending has pushed our nation’s debt into very dangerous levels.

KWAME HOLMAN: Maine’s Olympia Snowe joined Hatch and other Senate Republicans to resurrect the idea of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE (R-Maine): So, it’s clear we have lost control of our fiscal destiny. That’s — the American people understand that, intuitively, and particularly when foreign entities and foreign governments control 50 percent of our foreign debt. They own it. And so we have to change all of that. Our founding fathers had a vision. But they certainly didn’t visualize that we would accumulate $14 trillion in debt.

KWAME HOLMAN: That appeal came as the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected the budget deficit will hit $1.5 trillion this year, a new record. The figure was up from earlier estimates because of the tax cut deal approved during last year’s lame-duck session.

For their part, congressional Democrats argued, the Republicans’ plans for cutting government will only make matters worse.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois:

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D-Ill.): Republicans view the budget like a pinata. They believe, if you put on the blindfold and swing away, no matter what you hit is wasteful.

That is a mindless view when it comes to budgeting. And that’s why, when you take a look at their cuts, they end up adding a trillion dollars to the deficit, cutting a million jobs and calling for privatization of Social Security, an idea whose time has never come.

KWAME HOLMAN: But the fight over spending was not just across party lines. The Senate’s top Democrat, Harry Reid, said again today he opposes the president’s call to ban all earmarks.

GWEN IFILL: So, how did the president’s message resonate around the country?

For that, we turn to some of our public-media colleagues.

Megan Verlee — Megan Verlee is correspondent for Colorado Public Radio. Gene Grant is the host of New Mexico in Focus on KNME in Albuquerque. And Frederica Freyberg is reporter and anchor at Wisconsin Public Television.

Frederica, I want to start with you, since the president was in your state today, a state that turned completely from Democrat to Republican in the last November election.

So, how did what he have to say last night and again today resonate there?

FREDERICA FREYBERG, Wisconsin Public Television: Well, I have to say that the first thing that happened to the president when he stepped of Air Force One in Green Bay, Wisconsin, today was that he was presented with three Green Bay Packers jerseys, a slight rib at the president, who is a Chicago Bears fan. And, of course, the Packers are going to the Super Bowl.

But, you know, in terms of the state that — that turned from a Democratic majority to a Republican majority in both the statehouse, the governor’s seat — two congressional seats went to Republicans, and a U.S. Senate seat went to a Republican — what people here say is, the president is acknowledging this new political reality.

And his State of the Union speech last night, of course, made that clear. One political scientist from northern Wisconsin today said that, while the president acknowledges that new political reality, he still came to Wisconsin today because he is not willing to cede this territory to the Republicans in 2012.

GWEN IFILL: Well…

FREDERICA FREYBERG: But his trip to Manitowoc, Wis., which is on — go ahead.

GWEN IFILL: Well, I was just saying, before he even gets to 2012, there are certain very specific thing he advocated in his speech last night, like high-speed rail, which your governor has rejected.

FREDERICA FREYBERG: That’s absolutely right.

He advocated for this investment in these kinds of technologies, including the infrastructure of high-speed rail. And our new Republican governor, Scott Walker, did campaign against this high-speed rail project going through Wisconsin — it was supposed to connect Chicago to the Twin Cities, Minneapolis-St. Paul — and, in fact, turned back $810 million from the federal government in rejecting that project.

So, there’s definitely — definitely a philosophical difference between our new governor and the president of the United States. Of course, they’re both intent, both intent on creating jobs in this state and across the country.

GWEN IFILL: It’s just a question, I guess, of how you do it.

Megan Verlee, let’s go to Colorado, because — and I apologize for mangling your name earlier — because it seems that, in Colorado, there’s something similar going on, but especially this issue of bipartisanship, which is we saw talked about here in Washington last night.

It was your senator who came with this — Mark Udall, who came up with this idea that people cross party lines. Is that what his — his — his people — his people are demanding of him?

MEGAN VERLEE, Colorado Public Broadcasting: I think so.

Colorado tends to be a very moderate state. It — it punishes politicians who get too far in one direction a lot of times. And I think Udall — our Sen. Udall is probably feeling pretty proud of himself today for how much attention that moved got and how talked about it is.

I feel like I’m hearing more about where people sat during the State of the Union, in a way, than I am about what was said during the State of the Union. And our delegation certainly sat together and have all been very happy to talk today about having that hour together on the floor.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk about some of the things that were said during the State of the Union, Megan. There was a lot of talk, for instance, about education. And — and — and your — your — the other — your other senator, actually, has been — because he used to be the chair — the — the superintendent of schools in Denver, has been very involved with this as well.

Did that — were people talking about that? Was there — was there interest in what the president had to say on that subject?

MEGAN VERLEE: Absolutely.

I mean, first, there was a lot of pride that one of Denver’s real turnaround schools, Bruce Randolph, got a direct mention in the speech. And it’s no accident that Sen. Michael Bennet was superintendent of Denver schools while Bruce Randolph was turning around. There’s a lot of feeling in the state that that was a deserved recognition.

The reforms that started at Bruce Randolph, giving schools more independence, really looking at some innovative models for upping scores and helping student improvement, have gone from Denver now to our statehouse.

And I think there might have been some mixed feelings listening to the president talk about Race to the Top, because Colorado competed very hard in both rounds, made some very big legislative changes, some very hard ones up against the state’s teachers union and didn’t win either time, to the point that there was some feeling that possibly the West was being maligned in Washington.

So, I think, for some who tried real hard for that carrot and never quite caught it, hearing the president praise all the improvements that came from it might have been a little bittersweet.

GWEN IFILL: Gene Grant, one — I saw a word cloud taken that NPR did after the speech last night in which the biggest word that people remembered was the word salmon, the salmon joke.

But, also, one of the big words they remembered, phrases, was big things, doing big things.

In New Mexico, the people you hear, the people you talk to, does that sound like an optimistic idea, or does it sound like they’re about to become big spenders again in Washington?

GENE GRANT, KNME: Ah. I like the way you ask that. It’s interesting.

(LAUGHTER)

GENE GRANT: If there was any State of the Union I would say that almost sounded like it was directly at New Mexico on this idea of big things, it was last night’s speech. It was very, very interesting.

When he opened with, the first step is winning — in winning the future is encouraging American innovation, I will bet you a whole lot of New Mexicans sat straight up in their seat, because that’s right in our wheelhouse, with two national laboratories, Sandia National Labs, Los Alamos National Labs.

We — the consensus is — and it’s very interesting how it breaks down partisanship when you talk about national labs here — is that we are well positioned for the president’s budget proposal for more R&D, later in the proposal, to get forward with clean technology and innovation.

That is something that we have been trying very hard at here. There’s a number of challenges, but, you know, when you talk about big things, that’s how we see it. That’s how we interpret that here, that big things come out of these national labs with technology transfer.

I will give you an example, not so much on technology, but Ben Ray Lujan, one of our representatives here from New Mexico, is going to start a Technology Transfer Caucus in the House. And that’s a brilliant — fairly brilliant idea, when you — because one of the big struggles is, how do you get these brilliant men and women in these national labs who are coming up with these brilliant ideas and move this kind of stuff out into the private sector in clean technology, clean coal, if you will, nuclear management, a number of issues?

So, when people hear big things, people here were ready to receive that message.

GWEN IFILL: I want to ask you all about what’s happened since 2008, because the president did well in all three of these states and — and is popularly thought to have lost independent voters also in states like yours.

Starting in Wisconsin, Frederica, Paul Ryan, who’s the incoming chairman of the House Budget Committee, gave the Republican response last night. He’s from Wisconsin. To what degree is he speaking now for where voters of Wisconsin have gone since 2008?

FREDERICA FREYBERG: Well, I guess you would have to measure that by the election results.

And given that it is now a majority of Republican state, I gather that he speaks for those voters. And his message clearly is on budget restraint. And he regards entitlements as something that’s going to drag us down into, you know, the situation in Greece.

He — he said last night that government entitlements are going from a social safety net to a hammock. He’s the one who has proposals in his road map, of course, to get at Social Security spending by allowing people to privately invest some of that money, and by gradually turning Medicaid into vouchers.

So, I think this message of fiscal restraint and a bloated government resonates here in the state of Wisconsin. And I think that’s why you saw what you saw in the midterm elections.

GWEN IFILL: And — and the anger that was expressed in the midterm elections and — and that — that Paul Ryan is — was channeling a little bit of last night, you think that’s still alive and well in Wisconsin?

FREDERICA FREYBERG: You know, notwithstanding last night’s State of the Union address, where — where, you know, the message seemed to be unity, and people were coming together in the seating arrangement and that kind of thing, when I listened to a three-hour-long public radio statewide call-in program this morning, many callers from across this state seemed angry.

They seemed angry that the president did not talk about their immediate problem with unemployment, with joblessness, their immediate problem with being upside-down on their mortgages or actually being in foreclosure.

And it is acknowledged that the president did not touch squarely on those issues. And that anger could be heard. And, so, I don’t think some people are ready to give up on that anger.

GWEN IFILL: Megan Verlee, in — you went to a State of the Union watch party last night in — in Colorado. What did you hear there?

MEGAN VERLEE: Well, it was a bipartisan watch party put on by somebody who’s a supporter of Mark Udall, actually. He went from bipartisan seating to bipartisan watch parties, which I thought was interesting.

And what I heard from people affiliated with both parties was a real wariness. They all said, we know this president is a real good speaker. We expect to hear a real good speech. But we’re going to wait and see what comes of it.

You know, even afterwards, the Democrats who watched it were excited. They were sort of talking over some of the ideas, but there was this underlying skepticism of, a million electric cars, can that really happen? High-speed rail, 80 percent of the population, is that really getting here?

And you just heard this real wariness, even among people who support the president of: Talk is fine. Gave a good speech. We’re going to wait and see what you do with it.

And for the Republicans watching, I think there was an even stronger level of skepticism.

MEGAN VERLEE: Yes, sounded good. We’re not…

GWEN IFILL: Did they watch it together?

MEGAN VERLEE: … that much.

GWEN IFILL: Did they watch it together?

MEGAN VERLEE: They actually didn’t. The party ended up segregating itself. The Democrats were down in the den watching the TV in there, and the Republicans ended up watching the kitchen TV.

And you could sort of hear cheers and jeers from either side as certain points came up.

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: Well, some things don’t change.

Gene Grant in New Mexico, are people still wary after last night’s speech? Does it take more than one speech to make people think, OK, maybe this can work?

GENE GRANT: I would agree with what we just heard from Wisconsin and Colorado that, you know, talk radio that I heard the morning and this afternoon was pretty much on that same beat, a wait-and-see attitude at the least, hostile almost at the most, or at the worst, depending on your point of view.

And it really was like, wait a minute, this is not — I didn’t hear anything about getting myself or my wife or my husband or my kid back to work by next month.

And I think what had happened was, it was a sense of, you know, it started — again, for us here locally, it started with a very encouraging note that we could understand and we could embrace. And there was sense of waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting, and then, when it never really happened, when you never really heard something that would be impactful in people’s lives, it was almost like a throwing-up of hands, if that’s — if that’s the correct term.

It was a lot of frustration. A lot of folks were really — were really quite frustrated with it. And I would add as well, when you — the big picture, big stuff, big-vision things, some folks really cheered. Some folks were like, now, wait a minute. We have heard the before.

They’re not down with rail. They’re not down with a lot of different things that the president was proposing. The new technology and energy, the energy use in a very aggressive time frame, well, it begs the question for a lot of folks was how?

And so there’s a lot of questions yet to be answered here, and a lot of folks are still kind of skeptical.

GWEN IFILL: Fascinating to hear what’s happening outside of Washington.

That’s Gene Grant from New Mexico, Megan Verlee of Colorado, and Frederica Freyberg in Wisconsin, our public-media colleagues.

Thank you all.