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Obama Begins State Of The Union Preview In Michigan


President Obama is hitting the road to preview his upcoming State of the Union address and perhaps steal a bit of the spotlight away from Republicans in their first week leading both houses of Congress. Today, the president will be in Michigan for an event on jobs. Joining us for more is NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: How unusual is this, Mara, to travel before the State of the Union address rather than after it?

LIASSON: Well, it is unusual. He still might travel after the union address as well. But usually, presidents lay out their proposals in the State of the Union address, and then they go on the road to talk about them. The president is turning this tradition on its head a little bit by making a preview trip. He'll be talking about proposals this week that he plans to present to Congress two weeks from now, when he does give that big speech.

MONTAGNE: Now today in Michigan, presumably, he'll be talking about jobs. Where else is he going, and what else is he talking about?

LIASSON: Well, in Michigan he'll be talking about manufacturing, jobs and the auto bailout, which the administration considers a big success. Then on Thursday, he'll be in Phoenix talking about housing, how to make housing more affordable for the middle class. On Friday, he'll be in Tennessee talking about how to bring down the high cost of higher education. All these things, the White House says, will help the middle class and most of them are things he can do on his own.

MONTAGNE: Well, right. But, Mara, if they're all things he can do on his own without Congress, how does this help him get a legislative agenda enacted with the new Republican Congress, which has very different ideas?

LIASSON: It doesn't. And what's interesting is even though the president has laid out a few areas where he has said that a compromise might be possible with a Republican Congress - trade, infrastructure, maybe some corporate tax reform - this is really going to be a year of contrast and confrontation. You know, yesterday, right off the bat, just as the new Congress was getting sworn in on Capitol Hill, the White House sent out its first veto threat of the year to veto legislation approving the Keystone XL pipeline. This is going to be the very first piece of legislation that Congress passes, and already it has a veto threat. The White House is very confident they'll have the 67 votes in the Senate to uphold the president's veto. But it sets the tone. This is not the tone of cooperation and compromise that both sides had been talking about right after the election.

MONTAGNE: Well, it's certainly something the Republicans will be saying, that it sets a tone if the very first piece of legislation is vetoed by the president. But the backdrop for all of this is an improving economy, which is positive for the White House. We'll have new December job numbers coming out in a couple of days. How does that affect what the president is doing this week?

LIASSON: Well, I think it has a big effect because if the job numbers and the economic growth numbers stay strong, it makes it easier, number one, for the president to talk about an improving economy. He can take credit for this. He's had a very hard time talking about the economy. Democrats have too because people weren't feeling the economic improvements. In the last jobs reports and economic reports we got, people are feeling a little more confident. Wages are even up a little bit. It's still tricky for the president. Income inequality has - is a very strong trend. And people don't feel great, but they do feel a little better. And that is one of the reasons why the president's approval ratings are going up. And when you have tax revenues up and the deficit coming down, it makes it a little bit easier to get things done in Washington in the budget area, easier to compromise when you're not facing a terrible economy.

MONTAGNE: Mara, thanks very much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Mara Liasson is national political correspondent for NPR. 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.