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President Barack Obama put Congress on notice last night. He made it clear in his fifth State of the Union address that he’s willing to act when lawmakers do not. The president announced a series of executive orders that would bypass the need for congressional approval. They include raising the minimum wage for future federal contracts and improving job training skills and technology in schools. One area that could remain open for bipartisan cooperation: immigration reform. House Speaker John Boehner said yesterday that Republican leaders will outline their ideas for overhauling U.S. immigration laws this week. Diane and her guests offer analysis of the State of the Union address.
- Doyle McManus Columnist, Los Angeles Times.
- Jeanne Cummings Deputy government editor, Bloomberg News.
- Ron Elving Senior Washington editor, NPR.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. In his fifth State of the Union Address, President Obama made clear he would act alone if necessary to push his economic agenda.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMABut what I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class. Some require Congressional action, and I am eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still, and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for American families, that's what I'm going to do.
REHMJoining me in the studio to talk about the president's speech: Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times, Jean Cummings of Bloomberg News, and Ron Elving of NPR. I hope you'll weigh in today, give us your thoughts, your ideas on the president's State of the Union Address. Call us on 800-433-88500. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And welcome to all of you.
MR. DOYLE MCMANUSGood to be with you.
MR. RON ELVINGGood morning.
MS. JEANNE CUMMINGSGood morning.
REHMRon Elving, what did you find most significant about that speech last night?
ELVINGCould not help but be struck by the gap between the president who gave the speech before Congress and the president who then deals with Congress. We've seen this now five times. The president who goes up before Congress and gives the State of the Union is deft. He's adaptable. He's flexible. He's bipartisan. He can get everybody on their feet. He knows exactly what he's doing. The speech is masterful.
ELVINGThe president who then actually deals with Congress, gets into the much less dramatic business of making deals with Congress is much less adept, is much less flexible, is much less successful, much less bipartisan. He doesn't seem to be able find his way in that world, even though he had a couple, 3 years in the Senate before he became president.
CUMMINGSWhat struck me was how obvious it was that he's never going to run for public office again. And this was the most relaxed, casual, more engaging State of the Union that I think we've seen in his entire term. Normally, he comes in. He's disciplined. He sticks to the teleprompter. He's often confrontational.
CUMMINGSThis time he used humor, a crack about "Mad Men," you know, telling them to join the rest of the country and give America a raise, you know, the healthcare, 40 votes. We get it. He used humor instead of using confrontation. And I thought that was evidence that he knows he's done, relax, try to do the best you can in the last couple of years.
MCMANUSAnd in a sense, in the same vein, I think this speech marked the settling-in, if you like, of the downsizing of the Obama presidency because there were -- you know, he listed all of the big goals that have been there for a long time, but they weren't really in there under the pretense that this is going to get done in this Congress.
MCMANUSAnd that's why the really nitty, gritty, micro stuff of the executive orders that the president has to talk about now really reflect the much larger reality, that this is now -- at least for the next year, this campaign year -- a presidency where only small things are likely to get done. The big things are beyond reach. For example, one big thing that was entirely missing from this speech -- it's sometimes useful to ask what wasn't there -- the idea of a grand bargain that would couple tax increases and long-term reductions in spending on entitlements like Medicare -- completely gone, no mention at all.
REHMAnd here's our first email from Michael. "If the president has the authority to make the country better unilaterally, why did he wait five years to do so?" Ron Elving?
ELVINGBecause it's a fallback technique. It's not what you want. What you want if you're president of the United States is to permanently change the law. That's what the Affordable Care Act was and is and may continue to be, a permanent change in the law that really makes the whole healthcare delivery and insurance system quite different going forward. What exactly it looks like in the long term is to be determined. But that's a permanent law. That's something that, as Congress has discovered or at least the House of Representatives has discovered, is quite difficult to go back on.
ELVINGExecutive orders and some of the other things that the president is talking about doing can have temporary effects, sometimes fairly dramatic temporary effects. For example, Harry Truman integrated the Armed Services with an executive order, and that has stuck and has made an enormous social fabric difference in the history of the United States. But oftentimes they are simply reversed. Bill Clinton reversed many of George H. W. Bush's executive orders. His son, George W. Bush, reversed many of Clinton's. And then Barack Obama reversed many of George W. Bush's.
REHMSo what you're saying is these executive orders last as long as the presidency.
ELVINGThat's right. It's a little bit like a recess appointment, when we used to have those.
CUMMINGSAnd Ron's point also about small bore is important. On minimum wage, the president wants nationally the minimum wage raised. He can't do it. He can't pass it. So when you default to an executive order, what do you get? You get workers under federal contracts. They get the increase.
REHMNew federal contracts.
CUMMINGSNew and renewals. And so, over the course of time, if this stays in place, with renewals, you will indeed reach more of those workers. But that's an example of the difference between using executive orders and passing a national law.
MCMANUSAnd using executive orders comes with a bit of a political risk as well because it effectively says to Congress, on this one, I can't work with you. Legislation isn't going anywhere. In your face. I'm going to do what I want. OK. In any administration, regardless of party, that sets off a howl from the other side. Oh, you're using the executive power illegitimately. It's kind of a bogus charge. It's interesting to note that Barack Obama has actually been very restrained in his use of executive orders.
MCMANUSRonald Reagan used far more executive orders in both of his terms or at the comparable time in his presidency than Obama has. But that's not going to stop Republicans from stomping their feet and saying this is a terrible abuse. So there is a little bit of a danger of poisoning the well, except we're talking about a well that's thoroughly poisoned in these areas anyway.
CUMMINGSRight. There's no more toxin to put in.
ELVINGThat's right. And that's ultimately what's wrong with executive orders, is because -- except in a very few special cases -- it is an admission that you can't get this done in the way you'd like to get it done. And you can't get it done on the scale that you'd prefer.
REHMOK. But $10.10 for brand-new federal contract employees, some states have already gone in that direction. Isn't it possible that you could see that executive order push other states?
CUMMINGSWell, that's what they hope for. That's what they hope for.
CUMMINGSYou know, we start with the new federal contracts.
CUMMINGSWe add in renewals, so it gets bigger and bigger on the federal base. And then you have the pressure coming in from the states where they're doing it so that it creates competition for employers to get good employees to retain good employees because they're going to gravitate towards the best wage.
REHMThose states, exactly.
CUMMINGSExactly. And that is their hope, is that there is an exponential effect and that through that they get closer to their goal of a national minimum wage lift and not do it through Congress.
MCMANUSBut if the question is, is this move likely to produce momentum toward a federal minimum wage hike in this Congress, the answer is no, ma'am.
ELVINGThat's correct. It does have that hortatory effect though, that Jeanne is describing, because it's one more log on the fire. This is one of the issues where the president is winning. This is one of the issues where the polls show people are with him. And this is one of the places where economically you could make the argument that the minimum wage has fallen far behind productivity gains, that the minimum wage has not kept pace with inflation. And most Americans agree with that statement, and the president needs issues like that.
REHMWhat about other executive orders like job training skills? What's he talking about there, Jeanne?
CUMMINGSWell, he put the vice president in charge of an initiative to try to work with private companies. And this was something I thought was really interesting in the proposals they were making last night, how many times he's not only bypassing Congress, but he's trying to create public-private partnerships to get things done.
CUMMINGSAnd this is one of those cases where he will work with companies, private companies, colleges, and try to make sure or improve the chances that students in college are learning skills that pay off when they get out, to try to marry up what curriculums are offered to students with what is needed in the workplace.
CUMMINGSThat has been one of the major issues in the area of education, is having students graduate with a degree in which they can't get a job. And so this is part of his jobs, lifting the middle class initiative. Put them with degrees that marry up to the jobs that are out there.
MCMANUSAnd that all looks like pretty small bore stuff, and, in terms of federal programs, it is because there's little or no money behind a lot of this. Now, some of the executive orders can be very significant. For example, on the environment, there are going to be executive orders on coal emissions in the works for a long time. Nothing new about it, but they will, over time, effectively shut down a lot of coal-fired electricity generation in the country and maybe end up being the most important, single concrete thing this president has done on climate change.
MCMANUSSame thing with fuel standards. But, in the larger sense, what all of these elements are about -- including the public-private partnerships Jeanne talked about -- they're positioning the president to do two things, to go back to his own democratic base and say, I'm still fighting for the causes we hold dear, even if I'm not getting a lot through Congress. And they are giving the president a chance in an election year to try and strengthen his party's hold on the argument that they care about struggling working folks, and the other party, by implication, doesn't.
REHMDoyle McManus of the L.A. Times, Jeanne Cummings at Bloomberg News, Ron Elving at NPR. When we come back, we'll talk about the Republican response or responses and take your calls. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. Here with me in the studio assessing both the president's fifth State of the Union Address and the Republican responses: Ron Elvin of NPR, Jeanne Cummings of Bloomberg News, Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times. The first response from Catherine McMorris Rodgers.
ELVINGYes. The official Republican response was given by Cathy McMorris Rodgers who is the fourth ranking Republican in the House, which makes her the highest ranking Republican in leadership in either chamber. And she introduced herself to the nation last night. And, look, I mean, she's not unlike some of the other official responders in recent years.
ELVINGShe's not necessarily someone who's likely to be on the national ticket or running for president in 2016. And the whole idea of having her give this particular response was to change the face of the party, to seem more sympathetic to families, to seem more sympathetic to women in particular, someone who came from a small town, Kettle Falls -- you've got to love it -- in northeastern Washington up by the Canadian border, and was the first member of her family to go to college, worked in McDonald's.
ELVINGShe emphasized all these points of her humble origins and her connection to the average American struggling working American. And this was to put a somewhat different face on the Republican Party than what has frequently been the face of the Republican Party.
CUMMINGSI do think -- I agree with Ron -- that was the goal. I don't know if it was effective. It's -- these responses are really hard to pull off. Both parties have had a terrible time trying to follow the president and do it effectively. So I don't mean to just pick on the Republicans because, when Bush was in office, the Democrats did it just as badly. But to go from the presidential State of the Union setting to a couch, I don't think measured up.
CUMMINGSAnd so I know what they were trying to do, but I think they went, like, too informal. They made the mistake of the podium and, you know, trying to pretend to be the president. So that didn't work, so they tried something new. I don't blame them for trying something new, but I just don't think they found the solution yet.
MCMANUSOn the other hand, I went to a breakfast this morning with Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida who gave last year's response. And when he was asked about Cathy McMorris Rodgers, he said, well, if she got through it without taking a drink of water, she did better than I did.
CUMMINGSGood for him.
MCMANUSOn the other hand, look, the Republican Party has, however, invented an entirely new institution that we never saw before. And that is, it has taken its own internal divisions, its own civil war and codified them in multiple responses to the State of the Union, which is an astonishingly bad idea for a party because the opposition party has a hard enough time getting any attention as it is.
REHMSo that's why there were four.
MCMANUSWell, and, you know, it's let a hundred flowers bloom. You know, Rand Paul of Kentucky, for example, just put his out on YouTube. Next year, there may be 435 or whatever the proper number is of available Republican legislators.
CUMMINGSAnd agreeing with Doyle, I think he's totally right that this is going to proliferate. And they're going to totally dilute the so-called response, the state of the union. And it won't just be one party. This'll become a model, and this is the road we're on. But I thought what was really most damaging for the Republicans is that you had the -- it codified the civil war, that you had the official Boehner-picked response, and you had the Tea Party response from Sen. Lee. And that, you know, put it squarely on center stage, the civil war.
ELVINGYou know, it's remarkable that all these people want to give the response when you consider what's happened to the people who gave it in the past. It's become almost the graveyard of rising stars in the party. A few years ago, it was Bob McDonnell. Remember when he was going to set the world on fire. Now he's battling federal charges having just left the governorship of Virginia and battling federal corruption charges.
ELVINGA lot of rising stars have not gotten past this moment in the sun. So it really is much more a matter of the party trying to show a different face to people. And one of the four that did respond last night was Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, a congresswoman who was speaking in Spanish to a community that the Republican Party also wants to reach out to.
REHMAll right. Here's a Tweet from Rhonda: "Faced with Republican opposition on every issue, the president must do what's necessary to move the country forward." I gather she agrees with those executive orders. Here is something from Jose in Ft. Lauderdale: "I respectfully disagree with the tenor of the panelists' statements that Obama is winding down his presidency. I see an energized Obama who will now act decisively and with force to circumvent Congress and enact laws that are overdue for social justice and which elected lawmakers refuse to consider." Jeanne, that's pretty much what you said.
CUMMINGSYeah, I wouldn't say he's winding down his presidency. And if that's what I conveyed, I didn't mean it. What I mean is I think we have a reset going on. This is about reality. And if you look at his State of the Union from last year, big agenda items: gun control, immigration, entitlement reform, tax reform -- big, big items. And if you look at this one, I think what you see is a president who's going to acknowledge the reality of his situation and then maximize his opportunities within that situation.
REHMAll right. Let's hear what our listeners have to say. First to Concord, N.H. Hi there, Glen. You're on the air.
GLENHi, Diane. How are you today?
GLENGood. I have a comment and a question. But the lady who answered the phone says, you know, give the entire message (unintelligible) question.
REHMJust make it brief, sir, please.
GLENYes, miss. I want to make something clear to, you know, people, you know, like you and your two guests.
GLENThree guests, yes, I'm sorry. There's 450 million people in America last time we checked. And as far as the Obamacare concern, they keep saying that, well, most of the people in America do not like it. But most of the people in America is the poor. It's not the rich, and it's not the middle class. And we like it because we get to get healthcare, and we don't got to go to the emergency room when we're sick.
REHMAll right, sir. I appreciate your call. Ron Elving.
ELVINGYou know, we all have a tendency to characterize the mood of the nation.
ELVINGAnd we do it a lot. And we do it on the basis of polling information. We do it on the basis of, I don't know, our own sense of the zeitgeist interviews that we do with people around the country. But it is extraordinarily difficult to characterize the mood of 300 million people whose lives are so very different, in many cases, from each other's. And I do think, though, that there does remain a sense of where the conscious political participating people are going and what their mood is and what their temperature is.
ELVINGAnd maybe it doesn't change as radically as we oftentimes portray it in the media, but it does change over time. And there has been a change over the last 6 years in the way we all perceive Barack Obama. And last night we saw, to some degree again, that extraordinarily charming young politician that we all sort of met in the middle part of the last decade.
ELVINGAnd we saw some of how he got so quickly from the United States Senate in just a couple, 3 years of service there all the way to the presidency and why there were such extraordinarily high hopes for his transformative powers as a national leader. And we also saw demonstrated, once again, how it is difficult to move that nation of 300 million people, many of whom don't want to go in the president's direction as rapidly as people had expected.
REHMAll right. To Joseph in Sanford, Fla. You're on the air.
JOSEPHHi. First of all, I think the president's speech was truly brilliant in many ways. I particularly liked the way he was able to work in a round of applause for the Speaker of the House and at the same time make a point about the American dream being achieved by almost anyone. I have a question and a comment.
JOSEPHMy question would be, why is that President Obama has been, in a sense, forced to resort to this use of executive power in order to try and get anything done? And I believe in part -- in great part perhaps -- it's due to the Republican's abusive use of the filibuster. And it touched me to see Tom Harkin out there on the floor knowing that he's retiring, and he has been fighting for decades to try and change the filibuster rules.
REHMAll right, sir.
JOSEPHBut I am a member of Common Cause, and we are suing the Senate over the filibuster. And, Diane, I think that would be a great program for you. Get someone from Common Cause to explain the grounds for their lawsuit against the Senate. (unintelligible).
REHMAll right, sir. Thanks for your call.
MCMANUSWell, actually, it's not just the filibuster, which of course only happens in the Senate. The president's real trouble -- if he only had the filibuster, he'd be OK. His real trouble is the House of Representatives. For example, the Senate passed an immigration reform bill. It hasn't gotten anywhere in the House yet. And that is an issue that I thought was an interesting moment in the speech where the president used a deliberately light touch. He called on the House to go ahead and move on immigration.
MCMANUSHe didn't raise the bar too high. He didn't say it has to have a path to citizenship that's clear, it has to meet these standards. He really gave John Boehner a lot of leeway to get something done, anything done. And that, I think, was notable because that really is the one place we can see on the landscape where everybody is behaving as if big legislation actually is possible.
REHMAll right. To Joe in Richmond, Va., following up on that. Go right ahead, sir.
JOEGood morning, Diane and guests. Yeah, following up on that particular statement, I'd like somebody to explain to me -- I'm a pretty smart guy, I believe, use a lot of common sense. But how is it not only the president but certain parts of the Republican Party and, from what I can tell, the majority of the Democratic Party -- why do they keep trying to push immigration reform?
JOEWe got 50-some-odd million people without health insurance as it is in this country. And, you know, I have nothing against immigrants coming into the country, but the majority of the ones, at least they want to give legalized status to, they're uninsured. I mean, it's just economics 101 and common sense 101.
REHMAll right, sir. Thanks for your call. Ron Elving.
ELVINGThe president and many elements of the Republican Party see the normalization of status for some of the 11 or 12 million people currently in the country without proper papers as being a major economic plus. To bring these people into the sunlight will make it easier for them to be productive in the economy -- which, of course, many of them already are, but in the shadows -- and to also make it easier to deliver to them efficient services within the context of the larger healthcare delivery problem.
REHMBut the Republican argument against that is...
CUMMINGSThat they broke the rules, that they should have come into the country legally, or those that did come into the country legally, which actually is a majority of those who are here, overstayed their visas. And they should have to go home. So the Republicans' view is more of a law and order, right and wrong view.
CUMMINGSThe Democrats' view this not only is an economic issue but as an issue -- a moral issue, an issue in terms of who we are as a country -- we are a country of immigrants -- and that we should treat those who are here, those families, keep them together, that the fabric of our country is embedded in them.
REHMJeanne Cummings of Bloomberg News, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Doyle, you wanted to comment.
MCMANUSAnd if you want to boil it down, look, there's a practical problem. There are about 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country. And the practical question is, what are we going to do about those people who, as Ron says, are in the shadows? They don't get the protection of all the laws, and there is no national consensus for deporting them. So you've got to figure out a practical solution.
MCMANUSWhat the two parties are very slowly paddling toward is something that might end up giving legal status but not a path to citizenship to those 12 million in a first stage and then revisit the citizenship part later on. It is looking more and more as if that is what is going to be proposed in the House of Representatives...
REHMDo you see that happening in this election year?
MCMANUSNo. But it's going to be introduced in this election year. Bad year to do it because of congressional elections. May be easier for Republicans to do it next year once we're past that. But then the question of citizenship still ends up out on the horizon somewhere.
REHMAll right. To Chris in Novi, Mich. You're on the air.
CHRISMy comment is, I think the time is now to explicitly state what a failure Reaganomics is, the whole idea of trickledown economics. What we have seen in the past 30 years is since the balance of power has been shifted from the middle class to the upper class is actually an outsourcing of jobs -- a de-investing in America, outsourcing of jobs, offshoring wealth and offshore tax shelters. Since the -- and during the '70s, CEOs made typically 40 times what the average worker made.
CHRISToday, they make several hundred times, maybe 600 times what the average worker makes. And President Obama was exactly right when he stated that in the '80s, when you adjust for inflation, minimum wage was higher in the '80s than it is now. So it's a failure of Reaganomics, failures of the trickledown theory. Income needs to be set squarely...
CHRISThose -- if anything, you know, the advantage needs to be set in the middle class, and the economy needs to spread from the middle class. If people don't have money to spend, the economy's going to stall.
REHMAll right, Chris. Thanks for your call. Jeanne.
CUMMINGSWell, Chris raises a really important point, and it was the central -- I think the central theme of last night's speech. And it is the framing of the 2014 midterms. This is the terrain on which Democrats and the president want to fight out the fight for control of the Senate, so on income inequality. Who is going to stand up for working class people who -- Chris is right -- have not seen the same kind of recovery that wealthy people have?
CUMMINGSThere was a recent study done by a Berkeley economist. And the study found that those with the top 1 percent of incomes saw their earnings grow 31.4 percent from 2009. The bottom 99 percent, which I would think includes all of us, they saw their growth -- their growth was 0.4 percent. All of the money, all of the rise in the economy and wealth is going to the top 10 percent of earners. And it is not trickling down.
ELVINGHere again, this is a place where the president and the Democrats actually have a connection with popular opinion. This is a place where people agree with some of the characterization we just heard from Jeanne and from the caller about how things have gone in this country over the last 30, 40 years, and particularly since the public policy changes of the Reagan era and the way they played into the changes in the private sector.
ELVINGWe live in the age of management. We live in the age of the shareholder. We live in the age of the equity markets. And they have driven a lot of public policy over the years. If you look at the states the Democrats are most worried about in November in terms of holding the Senate, they were all states that were populist William Jennings Bryan-type states. And now they're all voting Republican. The big question is why.
REHMRon Elving of NPR. More of your calls, comments when we come back. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. Here is an email from Jonathan who labels his email "Very Disappointed." He says, "Maybe the diehard Democrats saw something to rally around the president's speech. But after almost 6 years, I've officially thrown up my hands with this president -- nothing creative, no inspiration, nothing to rally around. I believe Obama's leaving Democrats disconnected. I fear they won't come out in upcoming elections. In fact, the best thing going for the president's party is the Tea Party." Doyle McManus.
MCMANUSWell, there may be something to that, but Jonathan is one of the voters that Mr. Obama was trying to reach last night. There was a lot of old-fashioned, progressive liberal aspiration in the speech. He talked -- he did mention all of the old favorites, including even gun control where there's no prospect of anything getting done in Congress this year. But, look, the president's in a dilemma. He has been stymied in the Congress.
MCMANUSSo in effect, we're looking at a speech that had two distinct levels. One was about that small ball stuff that he can actually get done in terms of executive orders and other actions. And the other was, as my colleagues have said, a bigger, broader theme which is, I'm on your side. I believe inequality is a problem. I believe income flowing to that top 1 percent is a problem.
MCMANUSBut, again, if you look in the speech, OK, what were the solutions to that problem? You find pretty thin gruel. Minimum wage? Great if he can get it. But whatever happened to big tax changes that would bring tax breaks to low-income people and take some more taxes out of the hide of the 1 percent? Not there anymore. Even the Buffet rule isn't there anymore.
REHMAll right. And moving toward international affairs, Don says, "It struck me the president's very limited comments on international matters. He said he'd veto any new sanctions on Iran, even if they contained a delay in becoming effective. Unless he'd said this before, it was a sharp reminder of his determination to give the diplomatic process a chance to work," Ron.
ELVINGThe Iran agreement or preliminary agreement by which they are stepping back a bit from the brink of being a nuclear power in terms of a warhead is, if you will, perhaps the only success of foreign policy nature that you can point to for Barack Obama in his second term. And of course it's partial and incomplete and very much temporary, as we watch to see exactly how it goes forward.
ELVINGBut the president has said before, late last year and again on Jan. 12, that he would veto any new sanctions on Iran because they would clearly upset that particular deal. And you did not hear him talking a lot last night about Syria or South Sudan or any of a number of other places where there really isn't much good to say.
REHMAnd, Jeanne, here's an email from Ray who says, "In light of upcoming midterm election, why did President Obama not make an appeal to the public to provide him with a Congress he can work with to get his important issues accomplished? I distinctly remember President Reagan starting as such after his first two years in office. Do you think the president is being timid?"
CUMMINGSNo, I don't think he's being timid. And I do think, Ray, that that message will be heard, but on the campaign trail, not in the well of the U.S. House.
CUMMINGSBecause it's rude. Because it's rude to go into the U.S. House and appeal to the public to throw, you know, almost or more than half of the people who are in there, out of office and then turn around and say, and, by the way, let's work together on immigration reform.
REHMDid, in fact, Ronald Reagan do exactly that?
MCMANUSI'm searching my memory, and maybe I'm getting old. I can't remember it, Diane, if he did.
CUMMINGSI know that President Bush, the second President Bush, did it on the campaign trail, not in the (unintelligible).
MCMANUSBut you can do it on the campaign trail. That's very different.
REHMAll right. Let's go to New Bedford, Mass. Hi there, Tom. You're on the air.
TOMThank you, Diane. I heard Doyle McManus claim that we are seeing two different presidents, one who is flexible and adept and one who isn't when dealing with Congress. Excuse me, but we have seen unprecedented levels of obstruction on the part of congressional Republicans, unprecedented. The president is not a dictator. He needs a dancing partner in Congress. And Republicans are intentionally refusing largely because of what Ron Elving mentioned about the brilliance and charisma of this president.
TOMRepublicans want as few notches in the belt -- in Obama's belt as possible because they fear a Democratic Reagan and long-term Democratic dominance. They have the power to deny this president a long list of accomplishments, even if it is something both parties agree on like tax and immigration reform.
REHMAll right. Doyle.
MCMANUSWell, actually, I think both of these propositions are true. And that is, yes, you're seeing a remarkable and perhaps unprecedented -- although that's a pretty big word -- level of obstruction by Republicans in Congress. But you have to say that the record of Barack Obama as a legislative engineer in negotiating deals hasn't been great.
MCMANUSAnd members of his own party have quietly asked him to stay out of the last run of budget deals. And that was basically done by Harry Reid and Patty Murray. Why? Well, because they felt they had a better handle on it. So I think both of these propositions are possible.
REHMAll right. To Rolla, Mo. Hi there, Matt. You're on the air.
MATTHi, Diane. I just wanted to speak to the minimum wage. I'm a small business owner, and, you know, on face value minimum wage sounds really good. I mean, it just sounds good to the American public overall. But as a small business owner, when you raise my minimum wage, I'm going to be more selective on the unskilled employees that I hire. So what happens is I'll pass up on more unskilled employees and kind of refine my critique and go for a little bit more skilled employees since I'm going to have to pay more out.
MATTAnd then, also, for the minimum wage only to be effective on the federal government is almost like a jab in my eye as a taxpayer, like, you know, wow for the federal government on my tax dollars gets unmerited raise here. So I thought I'd sort of offer a little different perspective there on what maybe some of the public at least might think about the minimum wage and how -- what it'll actually achieve.
REHMI'm glad you did, Matt. Thanks for calling. Jeanne.
CUMMINGSWell, clearly that's the argument of the business community and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the retailers. And many large business advocacy groups are going to go up on the Hill and make the same argument that Matt just made, that it will cause employers to not hire as many workers. Studies show in states where they have raised the minimum wage that that actually doesn't happen. If -- and people like Matt, they hire employees because they need them. They need them because they need to do business and make money.
CUMMINGSAnd so they're going to hire what they need. Will he be selective? Will he make different choices? Perhaps, but he could do that for a variety of reasons. And one of them might be because of the wage that he's paying. It may be some other reason. So I think employers generally just make their decisions based on economics. That does mean wages do calculate into that. But studies in states that have raised the minimum wage show that there is not a dramatic economic downside to it.
ELVINGSteve King who is a conservative, to put it mildly, representative from Iowa, Republican, said yesterday and has said in the past that the problem with the minimum wage is that it exists. There just shouldn't be one -- that it should be entirely a negotiation between the employer who is looking for workers and the workers who are looking for work.
ELVINGAnd because we're talking about people at the very low end of the wage scale are looking for it rather desperately, that is probably not what you would call a negotiation between equals. And the government got involved in it a very long time ago so as to make it possible for people to survive and have what is really not even a living wage at the minimum wage but just some base down below.
CUMMINGSThey got involved for the very reason we're having the argument today...
REHMOf course. Doyle.
CUMMINGS...that people are living in poverty when they're getting the minimum wage.
MCMANUSAnd it's worth remembering a point that President Obama did bring up, and that is that, in real terms, the minimum wage now is lower than it's been for about 25 years. So the people working on minimum wage have in effect taken a long-term pay cut, and businesses hiring at the minimum wage have in effect benefitted from that devaluation of the minimum wage level. All we're talking about here is returning to the levels that prevailed in the Reagan Administration, and business did pretty well then.
REHMAll right. To Brian in York, Pa. You're on the air.
BRIANHi. Thank you. I think what we saw last night was lip service to five years of failed service to our country. He hasn't been able to get anything done. And if you want to blame Republicans for that, well, it's we the people speaking. It's not a dictatorship. So what he wants to do now is use his veto power to ram down the throats of the American people his will, which is just wrong and unconstitutional. Thank you.
REHMI don't think he's using veto power.
CUMMINGSI think Brian means executive -- his executive power.
REHMYeah, I'm sure. I'm sure. OK. Go ahead, Ron.
ELVINGYou know, the biggest problem for Barack Obama politically, the thing that has cost him the most, is the things that he has gotten done, the Affordable Care Act, the stimulus all the way back to 2009. The biggest drop in his popularity throughout his entire president came in the first six months he was president when he had a very cooperative Congress, a very cooperative House and Senate and they got a lot of things done. And there was a great deal of pushback from people who did not want the country to go in that direction and preferred a different direction.
ELVINGMany of them had probably voted for John McCain. Many of them probably voted for Mitt Romney. And they lost those elections. But they were numerous enough, and they were able to recapture control of Congress in a way that made it possible for them to express their will as well. But the president has gotten some things done, particularly in his first term. And those have really been the focal points of the struggle.
REHMHere's an email from Tim in Dallas. "Can your panel shed light on Republicans who did not stand, clap, when the president mentioned the pay gap for women in this country and that it's embarrassing? Surely these educated, sophisticated adults don't seriously oppose paying women the same as men for the same jobs," Jeanne.
CUMMINGSWell, it's interesting. Tim raises a point that I kind of pondered myself last night. When the president went on that particular riff, which was both funny and passionate and serious, Speaker Boehner sat on his hands, and I couldn't -- that didn't make sense to me because the Republican Party has got a gender problem.
CUMMINGSAnd, you know, I didn't understand why he didn't stand with the Democrats and just applaud on that issue. And it's -- there's no dire piece of legislation. There's no skin in the game on this. And so it would've been a symbolic message. And I think it would've been an important one for the Republicans to portray in that moment.
MCMANUSBut that may have been one of those moments where Speaker Boehner was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Republican doctrine does not like the idea of legislating standards of equal pay for equal work. They like the idea, of course, of equal opportunity and making sure that equal workers get equal pay.
MCMANUSBut the whole idea of standards for particular categories stick in their craw. And Mr. Boehner really had a problem there. It was also pretty deft by the president. I think that's right to put himself on that side of the issue. Probably if he had been able to bring Gov. Mike Huckabee in to talk about birth control, he would've done that, too.
REHMOh, my gosh. Oh, my gosh.
ELVINGThe key word here is libido.
REHMOh, Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times.
CUMMINGSOK. We're going downhill now.
REHMYeah, we're going down here fast. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Lisa in Washington, D.C. Hi there. You're on the air.
LISAHi, Diane. Thank you so much for taking my call.
LISAAnd all your panelists, I appreciate it especially. I just have to make the point quick that, Doyle McManus, I've lived here for over 20 years. I ran into you on the Metro about 15 years ago. You were very gracious, gave me a business card, and you are one of the few panelists that literally, with all the media changes and stuff, you are still one of the (word?) with the same organization, the LA. Times 'cause a lot of people are with different places now. And I just wanted to point out it's a pleasure to hear you on the panel again today.
MCMANUSThank you for that lovely compliment.
LISAYeah, and Diane, I just wanted to make the point that I know this is probably normal, but it almost seems like, before the State of the Union speech was over and then immediately after, like, the most important and popular soundbites have sort of already been chosen as to, you know, which ones are the best ones to talk about.
LISABut one I haven't heard at all was almost at the very beginning when he made the statement with some encouraging urgency in his voice about revisiting and passing that expired unemployment compensation bill this week seemed to get some momentum. Now, I barely heard anything about that today. And I just wanted to point out that those of us who are literally trying to beat the clock and have -- send out resumes -- and I had another great interview yesterday -- trying to beat the clock whose regular uninsurance ended four days ago.
LISAMaybe I got this job, and I'm excited. But the bottom line is that it's over now. And so those who ran out on the 28th or those who would be starting the emergency for the very first time after their regular is done, there are faces and people out here who really do job hunt every single day with the prime goal to try to get that job offer before that gracious small money that's allowing you to keep your head above some water level runs out.
REHMAll right, Lisa. And good luck to you in that search. Any comment, Ron?
ELVINGI found the spot in the speech I believe the caller's referring to. The president said, this Congress needs to restore the unemployment insurance you just let expire for 1.6 million people. That was a sharp jab. And perhaps the sharpest jab in the entire speech did get whoops, of course, from the Democratic side and was a clear jab at the people on the Republican side who opposed the extension of the jobless benefits for people -- and, you know, 1.6 million, that's a base.
ELVINGI mean, it can go down as people find jobs, and we hope they do. But it also rises as people hit that 26-week point, and they go beyond the limit and they start losing their benefits. So that number is likely to rise.
REHMDoyle, last quick comment. What, if anything, of importance do you expect to come out of this speech?
MCMANUSTwo things. I think it will be interesting to see whether the list of those executive orders and actions which are going to be rolled out week after week and month after month -- this is not just a one shot -- whether those do add up to enough to pay attention to. One of your callers said this is to energize Democrats. It's also to energize the administration. And then, finally, do we make any progress on immigration, the one issue on which legislation is possible?
REHMAnd there you have it, our panel's assessment of the State of the Union Address. Doyle McManus -- he's a columnist with the Los Angeles Time -- Jeanne Cummings of Bloomberg News, Ron Elvin at NPR, thank you all so much. And thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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