DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
A string of debates and primaries has kept the Republican presidential candidates in the spotlight this election season. Tonight, it's the president's turn to take center stage. President Obama will deliver the annual State of the Union Address, and in many ways kick off his own campaign for re-election. It's a reminder that Mr. Obama is running for president.
For a preview, we're joined by White House senior advisor David Plouffe.
DAVID PLOUFFE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Now, the president will has already hinted he'll focus on themes that he's raised before, one in particular that the middle-class can't afford, in his words: You're-on-your-own economics. Is tonight's speech really going to be economics, economics, economics?
PLOUFFE: Well, obviously, the central challenge we face as a country is: How do we strengthen this economy? And at this make or break moment for the middle-class, how we really design a blueprint that ensures that we create America built to last - that's based on, you know, American manufacturing, energy, skills - so that we have to continue to make progress. We've had 22 straight months of private-sector job growth, with over three million jobs.
But given the scale of the recession, we have so much more work to do. But, at the same time, we just see economic improvement. We've got to focus on: How do we strengthen the middle-class? How do we have more people in the middle-class? And that's the central challenge, not just of this president's tenure here, but that's facing the country.
MONTAGNE: I mean, can you give an example of a specific he might - a new program that he might announce?
PLOUFFE: Well, that would be a mistake for me to get ahead of the president. But there's going to be very, very specific ideas throughout the speech tonight on how can we improve our manufacturing sector, how can we make our tax code more fair, how can we have a revitalization in American energy, how do we make sure we have the skills and education required to fill the jobs of today and tomorrow.
So there are going to be specific ideas throughout the - you know, you mentioned in your introduction, this is a political season. It's election year. But I think the American people are going to insist that, yes, there'll be an election in November, but there's plenty of time in the interim here for folks here in Washington, you know, working with businesses across the country to make real progress that helps the economy broadly, and specifically lifts the middle-class.
MONTAGNE: Well, when you say that - the president will be going before Congress tonight, but on one side of the aisle, there are a group of politicians that managed to hold up his agenda this past year. He's expected to campaign against the Republican Congress. Will he, in a sense, accuse them tonight, call them out tonight?
PLOUFFE: Well, listen. I think no one who watched Washington last year could be satisfied with the performance here. And we were able to get some things done in a bipartisan way, trade deals that'll make sure we're selling, you know, GMs and Fords in South Korea. We were able to reach an agreement on cutting taxes for the middle-class. So we've made some progress. But there's no doubt that there was too much gridlock and partisanship last year.
Now, as you've seen over time here, the president has an initiative we called We Can't Wait, where he is scouring the landscape to find everything he can do on his own: to protect consumers, to cut college costs, to help with housing. So, there are some things we're going to be able to on our own, and we're going to continue that.
There is no doubt that there are some things Congress needs to do to help this economy and help you the middle-class. So, even though its election year, I think the point the president's going to make tonight is there'll be plenty of time for politics. But let's try and do the people's business.
MONTAGNE: Well, we're hearing - speaking of politics, we're hearing this morning the details about Mitt Romney's 2010 taxes and an estimate of his 2011. We now know he paid an effective tax rate of less than 15 percent on more than $42 million of income over those two years. His Republican rival, Newt Gingrich, has attacked him on this note - other rivals, as well.
Is the Obama campaign rubbing its hands in anticipation of doing the same?
PLOUFFE: Well, listen. This Republican primary is going to go on for a long time. It'll have a lot of twists and turns, and those voters will have to make their own judgment about Mitt Romney's tax returns. It does underscore, I think, a very important point, which we have a tax code here that's not fair enough, not simple enough.
The president talked throughout the fall about something called the Buffett Rule. Warren Buffett's aim was he said he should not pay less effective taxes than his secretary does. And we'll be talking about that in some detail tonight. So we have to have a tax system that, you know, is simpler. That's important. That means we can lower rates for a lot of people.
But if we're going to invest in manufacturing, if we're going to invest in energy, if we're going to invest in education, if we're going to cut the deficit, these are choices. And there's no easy choice. But as we cut a lot of spending - and this president has signed into law a guarantee of over $2 trillion in deficit cuts - we're going to have to get some of the rest of the job done with having the wealthiest in this country - the wealthiest 1 or 2 percent - pay a little bit more.
So, any kind of tax system where, you know, the wealthiest in our society are paying much less than the average middle-class worker is a problem, and we've got to fix it.
MONTAGNE: David Plouffe, President Obama's senior adviser, let me just ask you this. And this sort of suggests what might happen in tonight's speech, and that's that there are many challenges facing the United States overseas, foreign issues. How much will be devoted in tonight's speech? And I just - I'm asking you briefly to tell us about both his foreign policy successes, but also challenges in places like Pakistan.
PLOUFFE: Well, we do have plenty of both, and the president will obviously talk about that. We've, you know, ended the Iraq war. We're on case to end the Afghanistan war. We've degraded al-Qaida. So we've made huge strides, here. But, obviously, we still have challenges in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region in the Middle East. So the president will obviously be talking about those issues tonight.
MONTAGNE: But is the thinking that this is something that Americans really aren't so interested in, given the economy?
PLOUFFE: Well, no. I think that Americans are interested. I just think the central challenge that we're facing right now is we came out of a steep recession, the worst since the Great Depression, and the American people want to know: How are we going to continue to climb out of it? And that's what the president's going to lay out tonight: a very specific blueprint for how we build an America that's durable and that works for as many people in this country as possible.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
PLOUFFE: Thanks, Renee.
MONTAGNE: David Plouffe is President Obama's senior advisor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.