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President Obama’s legacy message mixes with 2016 politics

January 13, 2016 at 6:40 PM EDT
In his final State of the Union address, President Obama punched back at the notion -- popular on the campaign trail -- that America is in trouble. Political director Lisa Desjardins takes a look at how the candidates have responded, while Judy Woodruff talks to James Pindell of The Boston Globe, O. Kay Henderson of Radio Iowa and Andy Shain of The State for an update on how voters see the race.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: As we reported, President Obama today took the first of several trips across the country to amplify his State of the Union message.

It was an address last night that departed from the tradition of listing policy proposals, to focus instead on large themes of America’s future.

Political director Lisa Desjardins reports on how what he said intersects with the 2016 campaign to elect his successor.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Members of Congress, my fellow Americans.

LISA DESJARDINS: President Obama, aiming for legacy, quickly acknowledged the reality of 2016.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa.

LISA DESJARDINS: The outgoing chief executive used his final State of the Union to take a longer view, and deliver a countermessage to what’s being heard on the Republican campaign trail, where Donald Trump and Ted Cruz especially stress a dark critique of the country today.

The president punched back at the notion that America is in trouble, swinging hard on the economy, military and diversity.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.

The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth, period.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad, or our fellow citizens, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid is called names, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong.

LISA DESJARDINS: Republicans not running for president added to the theme. South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, handpicked by the party to deliver the official GOP response, warned of overreacting to today’s security concerns.

GOV. NIKKI HALEY (R), South Carolina: During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation. No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.

LISA DESJARDINS: While, back at the Capitol, Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a member of the House GOP leadership, told the “NewsHour” that some of the campaign rhetoric doesn’t represent all Republicans.

REP. CATHY MCMORRIS RODGERS (R), Washington: I don’t believe it represents what the Republicans are about. What Republicans are about is offering greater opportunity for every person, no matter who they are, no matter where they come from.

LISA DESJARDINS: Few said his name, but the Republican on many people’s minds, Trump, didn’t hold back. The front-runner tweeted that the president’s speech was — quote — “boring and nonsubstantive.”

Two of his Republican rivals, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, were out on the trail today slamming the president’s call to move past politics.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), Republican Presidential Candidate: He has divided this country deliberately for political gain for seven years, and then, in his last State of the Union, he says, hey, why is everybody so mad at each other? Because of you.

(LAUGHTER)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JEB BUSH (R), Republican Presidential Candidate: Every time he’s had a chance, he pushes down people that disagree with him to make his view look more sophisticated and important.

LISA DESJARDINS: Democrat Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, spoke up for her former boss as making progress.

Fellow candidate Bernie Sanders, who was in the audience last night, said the speech showed Americans shouldn’t fear change. As for President Obama, he next heads South, to Louisiana, to spread his State of the Union message farther across the union.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Lisa Desjardins.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the race for the White House, we turn to three political reporters covering the presidential campaign in the early voting states.

O. Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa, she joins us from outside Des Moines. James Pindell of The Boston Globe is in Manchester, New Hampshire. And Andy Shain who writes for The State newspaper, joins us from Columbia, South Carolina.

And we thank you, all three.

O. Kay Henderson, let me start with you, since Iowa is first. It’s less than three weeks away, on February 1, as you know very well. We were just talking about Donald Trump. He was an unnamed, if significant theme last night. How is he doing in Iowa? What does that race look like?

O. KAY HENDERSON, Radio Iowa: Well, the Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll out just this morning shows that it’s a tight race for the lead here between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Ted Cruz is actually leading.

The same poll showed Cruz with a wider lead in December, so that race has narrowed between the two of them. So, the angriest voices on the Republican field are leading among Iowa Republicans. There are two other Republicans who have sort of separated themselves from the rest of the pack. That would be Marco Rubio, and Ben Carson is still holding steady in the fourth position here in Iowa.

JUDY WOODRUFF: OK, staying with you just a moment, what are voters responding to?

O. KAY HENDERSON: They are responding to the idea that they are unhappy with the Republican establishment. Not only is that Donald Trump’s message. It’s Ted Cruz’s message. That resonates with the grassroots of the party.

They helped elect a new U.S. senator in Joni Ernst, helping Republicans earn the majority seats in the United States Senate, and they feel as if they got nothing for it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: James Pindell, what does the Republican race look like there? I know it’s eight days after Iowa on February the 9th?

What is — what are voters hearing? What are they responding to?

JAMES PINDELL, The Boston Globe: Well, right now, it’s been a story of Donald Trump, who’s consistently leading in the polls, about 30 straight polls over 150 days, and then everyone else.

In fact, the real race in New Hampshire isn’t first. People seem to be almost conceding that point to Donald Trump, but second place. And that second place battle is getting quite brutal and quite bloody. And the dynamic here has been well-documented. It’s about the establishment lane candidates.

If you want to look at the 12 Republican candidates and put them into three different lanes, we have the outsider lane. That’s certainly Donald Trump. You have the conservative lane. That is Ted Cruz, not only just of his success in Iowa, but also on the ground here in New Hampshire. He has been able to consolidate conservatives.

The third lane is the much more head-scratcher. It’s that establishment lane. You basically have four different candidates, of Chris Christie, of Jeb Bush, of John Kasich, and Marco Rubio. Now, in the latest poll that came out for Monmouth University, Donald Trump had 32 percent. If you add up those four candidates I just mentioned, those — establishment lane, they had 38 percent.

So you begin to see the dynamic about what’s resonating. It’s not exactly Donald Trump, if you want to look at the math. It’s this moderate vision. The question is, these people have no idea where to go with that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: James Pindell, just quickly, any particular message that voters seem to be — that seems to be resonating with voters for these so-called establishment candidates?

JAMES PINDELL: Yes, it’s the sense of electability, which is part of it.

And the other part of it is, is that this idea — and you hear a number of candidates say it — I have heard Kasich say this and Christie say this and Bush say this, and all almost in identical language, that: I know you’re angry, but I’m the person who can actually do something about the anger.

And I think that is beginning to resonate a little bit with traditional Republicans in the state.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andy Shain, on to you in South Carolina, the Republican primary not there until February the 20th, so a little more time.

But does any of this sound like what you’re seeing in South Carolina?

ANDY SHAIN, The State: I mean, again, we’re seeing, just like in New Hampshire, a Trump-dominated race. He also has been leading almost all of the polls since August.

At this point, it’s a matter of, can anybody catch Trump in the month that we have before the South Carolina primary? It’s going to be interesting. There’s going to be 11 days between the New Hampshire primary and the South Carolina primary, so there is going to be a lot of time for the candidates to try to woo voters in South Carolina, especially with what happens to them, with their results in Iowa and New Hampshire, who has the momentum and who’s able to capture that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There is another contest going on that you’re all having to cover, too, and that’s among the Democrats.

O. Kay Henderson in Iowa, Hillary Clinton facing a real serious challenge now from Bernie Sanders. What does it look like and what do you hear from Democrats?

O. KAY HENDERSON: The latest Quinnipiac poll out yesterday shows that Sanders has a lead here of five points. That’s of grave concern to the Clinton camp. As you have been hearing, Secretary Clinton has been attacking Senator Sanders on the gun issue. They think that resonates with Democratic voters.

Iowa Democrats tend to be slightly more liberal or progressive than Democratic voters in general, the Democrats who will actually participate in the caucuses, that is. And so that group is energized by the Sanders campaign, by the message that he’s been sending, and they’re also a bit upset with some of the Obama failures. Some of them are upset because he didn’t pursue a single-payer health care insurance system, like Senator Sanders is recommending.

Some of them are upset that Wall Street icons haven’t been sent to the prisons. That is something Senator Sanders speaks often about on the campaign trail. And so I think the Clinton people are now trying to tap into a group of Iowans that you might suspect they would try to energize in these final days and hours. They’re trying to tap into middle-aged women who see Clinton as a glass ceiling breaker.

JUDY WOODRUFF: James Pindell, New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders from the neighboring state of Vermont, what does the Democratic contest look like there?

JAMES PINDELL: You know, it’s absolutely fascinating, because, all fall, Bernie Sanders, the one state he could point to, to say he could win an early state was New Hampshire. He had almost a 10-point lead at one point in the state.

The race is now statistically tied, and it feels that intense. But why it’s so interesting is that New Hampshire is both Bernie Sanders’ sort of firewall — it’s the one place he thought he could rely on — as well as also this amazing legacy for the Clintons.

I mean, this is — more than Arkansas, or probably as much as Arkansas, this has been the political home to the Clintons. It’s a place that made Bill Clinton the comeback kid. It’s the place that gave Hillary Clinton, of course, that surprising win in 2008. They have a number of U.S. ambassadors from the state. They just have a deep personal relationship.

So, how is it that this is the state that Bernie Sanders was able to make some inroads? Right now, the Clinton campaign is not worried. They’re not worried for two reasons. Either, A, they’re not worried because they believe they have the superior staff and know-how. And they do have extremely experienced staff.

Or they’re not worried because they say: I don’t care. I can lose New Hampshire and still be the nominee.

You’re not seeing that sense of worry that I think you are seeing in Iowa.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, Andy Shain, South Carolina, farther away for the Democrats, February the 27th, but how does it look at this point?

ANDY SHAIN: Well, if New Hampshire was the firewall for Bernie, it appears that South Carolina is going to be the firewall for Clinton.

As of the last polls we had, which admittedly are a month-old, Clinton has had a 40-point lead on average over Bernie Sanders. She has worked this state very hard with the memories of 2008, where she tried to beat back Barack Obama, who was surging at that point. She’s made a point of really gaining African-American support here in South Carolina.

So, you know, to a certain degree, she’s really got this big lead this would — and a victory here certainly would carry her forward into March.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, there are so many balls in the air, so much to keep your eyes on. We thank all three of you for taking time from the trail to come talk to us today, Andy Shain, James Pindell, O. Kay Henderson.

Good luck out there.

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