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Hoping For Hope: Obama Seeks A Return To Optimism In Address


Now, for more on the president's speech, we're joined by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hi, Mara.


CORNISH: So listening to Jay Carney just now, what do you think is the president's overriding goal tonight?

LIASSON: Well, I think his overriding goal is really to communicate a tone and an attitude. You heard Jay say that the three kind of watch words are opportunity, action and optimism. The president knows that the American people are in a very sour mood about the economy and about him. His numbers have slumped over the last year. His Democrats are in danger of losing the Senate. So he wants to push against this idea that nothing can get done this year. He wants to communicate the notion that he's fully engaged, energized and that this is going to be, as the White House says, a year of action.

I also think one of the most important things he can do tonight is to shape the conversation. Presidents have a unique opportunity to do that in the State of the Union and he's going to try.

CORNISH: Now, arguably, he's done that with the income inequality issue. Even Republicans agree on the problem, if not the solutions. How do you think the president will handle that tonight?

LIASSON: Well, I think, as you heard Jay Carney say, he is going to focus on the growth and opportunity and of the income inequality puzzle, not on the redistribution side. In other words, he's already taxed the rich, the wealthy. He's not going to do that again. He's going to focus on expanding the pie, not just on slicing up a shrinking pie more equitably and, as he puts it, he's going to focus on ladders of opportunity into the middle class. And that actually is an area where he might find some agreement with Republicans.

CORNISH: Let's talk about some of the things that the president wants to do that Republicans don't, frankly. Raise the minimum wage, fund universal pre-kindergarten, extend unemployment insurance.

LIASSON: Well, that's where the pen and the phone come in and the new focus on unilateral action. As Jay Carney just said, if he can't get a minimum wage through Congress, he's going to chip away at the problem by himself by, like he did today, raising the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10. The federal government is, after all, the country's biggest employer.

But all of these issues, raising the minimum wage, extending unemployment insurance, universal pre-K, they are very popular and as a matter of fact, almost all the issues that the president is going to stress tonight poll over 50 percent, including keeping and fixing rather than repealing the healthcare law, as unpopular as that law might be.

So these are issues that Democrats can unify around, run on in the midterm elections, independent voters like these issues, even if Republicans in Congress don't want to pass them.

CORNISH: And then, there's the issue that people are talking about, immigration, something that may have a chance of passing this year in some form. Tell us what the president can do there.

LIASSON: Well, we are in a new chapter on the immigration reform debate. After writing off the chances of anything happening, all of the sudden, optimism is busting out all over Washington. People feel now that 2014 could actually be the year that the House would pass something. The Senate already has. And Republicans are thinking maybe they need to get something done this year, before the presidential primary season starts in 2015.

I think tonight you're going to hear the president tread very carefully on this issue. He might push off against Congress on the minimum wage or other issues, but on immigration, he doesn't want to antagonize Republicans. He wants to keep the possibility of bipartisan progress on this issue open so that means he won't be firing up the partisan rhetoric on immigration.

He wants to try as much as he can to help John Boehner in any way he can and that may mean, as you saw him do during the budget negotiations, staying out of it as much as possible and just working behind the scenes. His goal is to get the House Republicans to pass a bill this year or a bunch of bills, and then see how they can deal with the Senate version.

CORNISH: That's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.