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Close Read: Reviewing State Of The Union Address


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News with Linda Wertheimer. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Throughout today's program, we're hearing parts of President Obama's State of the Union Address and many reactions to it. This is the part of the program where we take a close read of the speech. We've done this nine years running. In some cases we're checking facts. And in other cases we're asking what some parts of the speech really mean.

NPR correspondents will talk us through several key statements, starting with the president's assertion that he's done a lot to reduce the deficit.


INSKEEP: NPR's economics correspondent John Ydstie was listening to that. And John, is that enough?

JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: I think we need to look at the language, Steve. President Obama says $4 trillion in deficit reduction will stabilize the debt. But that suggests he seems to have given up on actually reducing the size of the debt relative to the economy - putting it on a downward trend - much less balancing the federal budget each year.

Now, many economists would agree that stabilizing the debt is the first step and gets us out of the danger zone. But others would argue stabilizing the debt at 75 percent of the size of the economy, where it is right now, is just too high.

And the other issue is that the $4 trillion in deficit reduction doesn't include the savings we'll need to make Medicare and Social Security solvent for the long-term. So there needs to be another bite of the apple.

INSKEEP: Now, at the same time the president talked about new ideas for spending, or as he would put it, investment. Let's listen.


INSKEEP: Trying to drop the dime on spending there. NPR congressional correspondent David Welna was listening. David, did the rest of the speech measure up to that promise?

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Steve, I think the president did not make it at all clear how he would not add a dime to the deficit when he went on to propose a series of big federal investments that will indeed all cost a lot of money. For example, he proposed that Congress create 15 more of the manufacturing innovation hubs like the one that was started last year in Youngstown, Ohio. He wants high-quality preschool available to every child in America.

He did propose a partnership to rebuild America that might attract private capital. But he added he wanted to make sure that taxpayers don't shoulder the whole burden. So there seems to be a suggestion there that there will be some burden.

Now, one way you could keep these new initiatives from adding a dime to the deficit would be to cut the same amount of spending elsewhere. But if the president is hoping to do that, he did not say so last night.

INSKEEP: OK, says David Welna.

And let's move on to the healthcare law, Obamacare, as the president himself now calls it. This is what he said about it.


INSKEEP: Helping to slow the growth of costs. NPR's Julie Rovner has been covering this health care law for years. Julie, is the law doing that?

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Well, that's certainly what the administration would like people to believe. There isn't a lot of evidence to back it up. Here's what we do know. The growth in health care spending over the past couple of years has slowed and has slowed a lot, mostly, analysts think because of the recession.

Now, there's also something else going on at the same time, which is that the way health care is delivered has been changing and it's been changing fast. There's more of an emphasis on delivering care more efficiently. Doctors and hospitals are being organized much differently. And the Affordable Care Act is giving those changes a boost. But to say that it's causing the slower growth in health care spending is probably an overreach, at least for now.

INSKEEP: Aren't the main changes in this law still supposed to take effect in the future?

ROVNER: Yes, many of them do. And that's certainly one of the major reasons that it is hard to say that this law has been encouraging costs not to go up.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Julie Rovner.

Now, there's also a difference of the fact that was on display last night when it comes to this country's dramatic increase in oil and gas drilling. A lot of that has taken place on private land. The question here has to do with publicly-owned land. Let's listen to what the president said.


INSKEEP: Now, Republicans have for years said the opposite. They blame the president for blocking exploration on public lands. And in fact, Senator Marco Rubio - in the Republican response last night - suggested he wanted to change that.


INSKEEP: And we've brought in NPR's Elizabeth Shogren, who covers environmental issues. And Elizabeth, who's right here?

ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: Well, in fact if you looked at the statistics, drilling was up in the U.S., 2011 to 2012, by 25 percent. So that's a big leap. But if you look at the statistics about drilling on federal land and on federal offshore waters, drilling really wasn't up, and so that shows you that most of the increases are coming on private lands, like the Republicans say. There are, however, lots of possibilities for energy development on federal land in the future and there's also this possibility of developing wind power offshore on federal land.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So each person had a little bit right.

INSKEEP: Now, if you just joined us, we are doing a close read of President Obama's State of the Union speech last night. It came, of course, at a time when there is much talk of changes to immigration law. A key question is border security and the president made this statement last night.

: And we can build on the progress my administration's already made, putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history, and reducing illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years.

INSKEEP: Their lowest levels in 40 years. NPR's Ted Robbins is in Tucson, Arizona. He covers the border. Ted, why have crossings gone to that low level?

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Most experts, Steve, agree that it's the economy. It's a lack of jobs since the recession to bring people here. A lot of people also think that it's so hard to cross now that many of the 11 million people who are in the country without documents used to come and go. They've stayed. Part of that...

INSKEEP: Hard to cross because security has actually increased.

ROBBINS: Right. And the fact is that we, by one account, are spending $18 billion this year on border security - agents, equipment, infrastructure. The question is, I think, what we really have to look at here is when do we get to the point where the border is declared secure - you know, how do we know? The fact is, no one can define what a secure border looks like.

The government has been unable to do that, both Bush and Obama administrations, and Congress has been unable to do that. So who decides and does this really become a trigger for dealing with the other parts of immigration, legalizing those 11 million people, granting more visas, that sort of thing. That trigger is what's scuttled immigration reform in 2007.

And the Republicans seem to want that again now. That seems to be their precondition.

INSKEEP: And let's look closely at one foreign policy statement that the president made last night. He spoke in one passage about the Arab Spring, the Arab uprisings and their aftermath.


INSKEEP: To which the president added this.


INSKEEP: Okay. Let's bring in NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen, who's been closely following that story. And Michele, what has the president done when it comes to Syria, where there's a civil war that's been going for a couple of years now?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Well, what administration officials will say is that they helped the Syrian opposition get organized, though that's still very much a work in progress, and the U.S. has given a lot of humanitarian aid, though it hasn't been funneling it through the opposition the way the French have, for instance, to boost the credibility of those people inside Syria.

And the Obama administration decided against, we now hear, the advice of some of his top advisors not to arm the oppositions, mainly, it seems, to make sure weapons don't fuel the conflict or fall into the hands of extremists. So you hear the president taking quite a cautious approach to Syria and across the region. When he talked about those Arab uprisings last night, he said this process is going to be messy and the U.S. can't dictate change.

INSKEEP: Okay. Thanks very much. That's NPR's Michele Kelemen. We also had help on our close read of the president's State of the Union speech from NPR's John Ydstie, David Welna, Ted Robbins, Julie Rovner and Elizabeth Shogren.

MONTAGNE: And that was MORNING EDITION's Steve Inskeep with us this morning from Iowa Public Radio. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.