JUDY WOODRUFF: What can the nation expect from President Obama’s State of the Union address tonight?
I spoke with White House Press Secretary Jay Carney a short time ago.
Jay Carney, thank you for joining us.
Let me begin by asking, what does the president want to accomplish tonight?
JAY CARNEY, White House Press Secretary: Judy, tonight, he wants to make clear to the American people that his number-one priority is what it has always been since he began running for the office of the presidency back in 2007, that is, the need to grow the economy and rebuild and strengthen the middle class, because the middle class has always been the engine of our economic growth.
And when the middle class does well, when our economy grows from the middle out, instead of the top down, America does better. And that’s really been the focus of his energies on domestic policy since, like I said, the time he began running for this office. It was the focus of so much what he did in his first term. And it remains the focus, because the recession that was in full bloom when he took office in January of 2009 cost this economy almost nine million jobs and dug a huge hole, out of which we have been climbing ever since.
We have achieved a lot, over six million private sector jobs, quarter after quarter of economic growth. But there’s more work to do. And what you will hear tonight is a plan from the president to get that done, more jobs, more growth.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, when it comes to the economy and the fiscal health of the federal government, we know that House Speaker John Boehner told reporters today that the president, in his words, doesn’t have the guts to tackle the serious problem of the debt facing this country, that he’s not willing to take on his own party when it comes to reducing — or, rather, raising the eligibility age for Medicare.
JAY CARNEY: Well, I think it’s unfortunate that — the name-calling on the eve of the State of the Union. And I think it’s kind of rich coming from the speaker of the House, who in a series of negotiations with the president has walked away from compromise proposals that the president has put forward as recently as the end of last year.
The president put forward a broad deficit reduction package that represented some very tough choices for Democrats, some very tough pills to swallow for Democrats. John Boehner, on the other hand, never did put forward a proposal that had the support or that he could lead his party to support. And that’s unfortunate.
But the president will, you know, make clear again tonight, as he has ever since, that those ideas that he put on the table with his — in his negotiations with the speaker remain on the table. He’s committed to getting this done in a bipartisan way. We need to balance — or, rather, reduce our deficit a balanced way that doesn’t put all the burden on seniors or middle-class families trying to send their kids to college, but that reduces spending in a way that is fair and that asks the wealthiest to do their fair share.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But it’s not just the House speaker and Republicans. It’s the bipartisan group called Fix the Debt. They put out a statement this afternoon saying they are disappointed that the president isn’t prepared to look at serious reforms of the so-called entitlements, again on raising — not being willing to raise the eligibility age for Medicare, bringing that topic up again.
Why isn’t the president prepared to do that?
JAY CARNEY: Well, it’s simply false that the president isn’t prepared to do serious entitlement reform.
In fact, he is. One of the things that he put on the table in his negotiations with Speaker Boehner late last year was a willingness to do so-called chained CPI, to adjust the cost of living adjustment that applies to a variety of programs, including Social Security, as part of a comprehensive deficit reduction deal that included revenues.
He also put on the table a willingness to means-test Medicare premiums, again an idea that doesn’t sit well with a lot of Democrats, but he believes is worth doing as part of a comprehensive, balanced approach to deficit reduction.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me also ask you about gun control. That’s another subject we know the president is going to bring up tonight. Does he look to make — to reach some sort of compromise? And we know there are deep divisions in both political parties over what to do about guns.
And what does the White House hope to accomplish by bringing a number of either victims of gun violence to the State of the Union tonight or their relatives, family members?
JAY CARNEY: I think the point that he’s trying to make is that gun violence is a problem that faces all of us. It is a problem in this country that we need and can address together.
It shouldn’t be just an ideological debate between lobbies in Washington. It should be a conversation out in the country because it affects everyone. And the comprehensive set of proposals that the president announced several weeks ago to reduce gun violence in America, proposals that include legislative action in Congress, as well as executive action, 23 executive actions from the administration, represents an effort to deal with gun violence in a commonsense way.
Not a single proposal that the president has put forward would take a single firearm away from a single law-abiding American citizen, because he believes in Second Amendment rights. But he believes that we ought to take action, sensible action, to reduce gun violence in this country, because, as we all saw in Newtown, Connecticut, the horror of what happened there, I think, will stay with all of us forever.
And, unfortunately, as we have seen again and again, it happens all too often in this country.
JUDY WOODRUFF: We know the president is going to be following up the State of the Union by making a trip to North Carolina. He’s going to be going to Atlanta and then to Chicago later this week.
We’re reading today, not just Republicans, but Democrats privately are saying, we think — we worry the president is out there campaigning, still in campaign mode, when he really ought to be sitting down with lawmakers here in Washington to work out some of these tough issues.
JAY CARNEY: Well, I certainly haven’t heard a lot of Democrats saying that.
What I would say is that this president firmly believes that it is part of his obligation to those who voted for him and those who voted against him to go out into the country and explain what his vision is, explain what his agenda is, and to rally support for the proposals that he’s put forward, proposals that on issue after issue already enjoy a majority of the American people’s support.
It’s simply not the case that we should just have these conversations among ourselves here in Washington. The president believes that we need to go out into the country and have the conversation with the American people. I think we’re selling him short if we assume that they’re not interested in conversations about how we reduce our deficit in a balanced way, how we tackle comprehensive immigration reform, how we meet the challenge of gun violence in America.
These are conversations the American people desperately want to have with their leaders, and the president is going out and having those conversations. And it’s also true when it comes to getting something done in Washington, we have learned from hard experience that it is not just enough to sit around a table with congressional leaders and try to work out a negotiation.
It is very helpful to go out and engage the American people to make sure their voices are heard and that their priorities are listened to here in Washington. That’s what the president is going to do. He’s going to do both. He will continue to work with Congress, continue to negotiate with Congress and continue to meet with Congress on issue after issue. But he’s not going to leave the American people out of the equation.
JUDY WOODRUFF: We hear you, Jay Carney, joining us from the White House. Thank you.
JAY CARNEY: Thank you, Judy. I appreciate it.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Online, join the discussion around tonight’s address.
NewsHour political editor Christina Bellantoni will host a Google Plus Hangout. Find a link to it on our home page. Also there, you can watch the NewsHour’s special coverage of the State of the Union.