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Obama Speech Part Of Attempt To Refocus Economic Policy


Joining us from the White House is Gene Sperling, director of the president's National Economic Council. Welcome to the program once again.

GENE SPERLING: Well, thank you for having us.

SIEGEL: In today's New York Times, Kentucky Republican Congressman Harold Roger, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, says of President Obama: His priorities are going nowhere. He was referring to some tough spending cuts that House Republicans favor. Do any of the programs that the president plans to announce this week really stand a chance in the face of those political headwinds?

SPERLING: Well, the president is using this speech to try to refocus Washington on what economic policy is supposed to be about, which is growing the economy in a way that strengthens, not hollows out, the middle class, and by putting that focus on what we need for job creation, for dignified retirements, for health security, for being able to buy a home in a sound financial system and for keeping college costs low. These are the things that people expect the president and their elected officials to work on.

And I think the more that the president puts that focus on what he thinks is his North Star, which is an economy that's strengthening the middle class, the more we keep the discussion on what people care about. And I think it puts more pressure on members of Congress, who may not agree with the president's ideas, but at least have to feel an obligation, to come forward with their own ideas as opposed to just saying no and just dealing in gridlock and manufactured crisis.

SIEGEL: But the president has made many very effective speeches before, lots of them to get re-elected, also State of the Union addresses. He hasn't achieved that change among House Republicans. Why should he now?

SPERLING: You know, I think that this is more than just how you handicap a particular piece of legislation in a particular week or month. It's about setting the right economic agenda for the country. And I think one of the things the president is going to be talking about over these next several weeks is the direction we should be going, what we should be doing legislatively, but also making clear that if Congress is not acting with him, he is going to make progress on these important areas.

Giving you an example, on education, the president has proposed what's called ConnectED. It is a proposal that would raise the E-Rate a little bit, just a tiny bit, but would mean that 99 percent of schools in our country would be connected to high-speed broadband in five years, meaning there could be digital education on the desk of every student in our country in a few years.

These are the big, important things that he's pointing the country towards. He thinks by pushing the agenda, he will refocus Washington on the reasons we're supposed to be here. And if Congress is not going to work with him, he is going to use his powers of mobilization and the bully pulpit and using existing government resources to continue to make progress on retirement security, on health security, on college costs.

SIEGEL: Should we assume that the sequester is here to stay and that more federal spending cuts of that sort are to come?

SPERLING: Well, I think the president makes very clear that we should have a pro-growth, pro-middle class fiscal policy. And the type of across-the-board cuts that cut back in the things that we should care about most - like the House Republican budget does on education, on mental health, on research - really do not make sense for part of a vision of an economy that - where you want the United States to be a magnet for middle-class jobs, to invest in our future.

And, again, I think that the public gets lost in the constant arcane manufactured budget crisis, and it's important to make clear what we're fighting for.

SIEGEL: But Gene Sperling, the president felt that when we entered into sequester the first time. What's going to be different in the next round?

SPERLING: Again, you know, the president's laying out today an agenda for refocusing economic policy in Washington, D.C., to what Democrat and Republican families want, which is economic policy that strengthens the middle class, makes sure that we are responding to the challenges of globalization in a way that's not hollowing out the middle class or leading to growth that only benefits the top 1 percent or has winner-take-all benefits.

And one of the powers of the presidency is to focus the agenda or focus Washington on the things that matter. And I think the more that he does that, the more there will be pressure on all parts of Washington and across the country from CEOs to college presidents to work together to move the ball forward.

SIEGEL: Gene Sperling, chairman of the National Economic Council at the White House, thank you very much for talking with us.

SPERLING: Well, thanks for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.