MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, NPR's senior business editor, Marilyn Geewax, will be with us once again. She'll be fact-checking the economic portions of the president's speech.
But we have more now with White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. She's one of the president's closest advisers. She's a key member of the team. She was with the president at the State of the Union address last night, and she's with us from the White House.
The president also said that he will fight obstruction with action, to get his plans for the economic recovery through - and other plans that he feels are essential to help the country. You know, a lot of Republicans are saying that this really wasn't a State of the Union address last night. This was really the opening campaign speech.
To the degree to which the president does continue to make unilateral moves - say, use his recess appointment power, and things like that - do you have a concern that that will just further inflame feelings on Capitol Hill that will make it even harder to get things done legislatively, even where there are opportunities to work together in a bipartisan fashion?
VALERIE JARRETT: Well, you have to look at the stakes, Michel. The stakes are very high. You mentioned recess appointments. A couple of weeks ago, the president appointed Rich Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Why did he do that? He did that because under the Dodd-Frank legislation, an integral part of that legislation was to make sure that for the first time, we have one agency whose sole responsibility it is to look out for the consumer.
Well, the Republicans in Congress oppose having that entity. They didn't want to have a consumer watchdog, and that's why they opposed Rich Cordray. Not that they had any concern with him - in fact, Rich enjoyed bipartisan support among his colleagues when - he used to be the attorney general of Ohio.
And so this wasn't an issue of there being a concern about Rich. It was their objecting to the principle that we have this policy in place. And what the president said is look, consumers all around this country have suffered as a result of not having rules of the road. We need a person who's going to be looking out for the consumer.
The other component for why this was so important to appoint Rich is, is that a part of the provisions of the law didn't go into effect until you had a director of the agency. So they were unable to regulate - for example, payday lenders, they were unable to regulate mortgage brokers - some of the bad actors who had such a terrible impact on the consumer throughout this economy. And so I think the short answer to your question is, the president's focus is not on politics. His focus is on what is important for the American people.
The election is months away, but we can't afford to wait until then to look out for the people who have been so disadvantaged by all of the bad acts that took place a few years ago, that led to this economic crisis.
MARTIN: The president also again introduced the idea - as he has before - of the need, as he sees it, to raise taxes on the richest Americans. He raised again the question of the fairness of the tax rate for someone like Warren Buffett being lower than for Warren Buffett's secretary, who actually happened to be in attendance last night - or not happened to be - who was in attendance last night.
JARRETT: Well, he invited her. Yes.
MARTIN: He invited her, yes. So how do you respond, though, to the Republican argument that this plays into the narrative that Democrats are more interested in raising taxes than cutting spending?
JARRETT: Well, the president was very clear last night, I think. He's absolutely committed to reducing our deficit. And I think the point he made last night is look, we only have so many pots to look to. And if we want to bring down the deficit, we have to restructure our tax system. We also have to restructure it because we have to make it more fair.
And so if we really want to - for example, encourage manufacturing to come back to the United States, well, that money has to come from somewhere. And the president made the point, Michel, that look, we celebrate success. That's what America's all about. Entrepreneurs who can start a business in their basement and have it grow into a global company - that's exactly what we want.
But that entrepreneur didn't do it alone. They hired a workforce that was trained by our public schools. They use our roads, our bridges, our railways, our Internet - all of which was created by government. And government is there to do what the private sector can't do.
Many of our advances in science and technology were seeded through government. And that's his point, is - is if we really want to be a world leader, the world leader that we are, if we want to maintain our competitive advantage, we have got to figure out how we can bring down the deficit, yet invest in business.
And so if you think about all the different pots that are available to you, isn't it only fair that those who have done so well pay a little bit more? And I think the reason why he invited Debbie to be a guest in the box is because she's really, a perfect example of somebody who works really, really hard. And is it fair that she pays a higher tax rate than her boss, Warren Buffett? Warren Buffett doesn't think so.
MARTIN: I'm speaking with Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Obama and, of course, we're talking about last night's State of the Union address.
You know, another area where the president laid out a clear philosophical difference with the Republicans in Congress - and also, many leading Republicans around the country - was around energy policy. And of course, this has been, you know, a very hotly debated issue.
The president decided not to go forward with a pipeline, you know, from Canada. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who delivered the Republican response to the president's address last night, talked about this. I just want to play a short clip of what he said. Here it is:
(SOUNDBITE OF REPUBLICAN RESPONSE TO STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)
GOV. MITCH DANIELS: Extremism that stifles the development of homegrown energy, or cancels a perfectly safe pipeline that would employ tens of thousands, or jacks up consumer-utility bills for no improvement in either human health or world temperature, is a pro-poverty policy.
MARTIN: Clearly, the argument is forming that the president is not taking advantage of opportunities for economic growth like this pipeline. And it makes the argument that creating jobs as a number one priority rings hollow to people like Mitch Daniels. How do you respond to that?
JARRETT: Well, let's talk about the pipeline. The fact of the matter is, when we were negotiating the extension of the payroll tax, the Republicans put the pipeline on the table. And they tried to force the president to make a decision under a timeline that at the time, the secretary of State said very clearly that they had not completed their environmental review.
And Secretary Clinton said, before the payroll tax extension was passed, do not give us a deadline because we will not be able to meet that deadline; and if you do, then we're going to have to turn it down. So they had - the Republicans had all the warning in advance that if they set this arbitrary deadline, we'd have to turn it down as opposed to just letting it go through the normal process and perhaps approving it, perhaps reconfiguring the route. I mean, there were a whole range of possibilities, but they precluded any of that by insisting on this drop-dead deadline. And I guess the question is, what did the pipeline have to do with extending the payroll tax in the first place?
And the other point the president made last night about continuing to extend the payroll tax, which is so important for 160 million Americans who depend on this. Forty dollars a paycheck is a big deal. I was sitting next to a woman last night who had written in about what she would do with her $40. And she explained to me how important that is to her just to get by. And so why would we burden that piece of legislation with other pieces of legislation that aren't germane?
MARTIN: And finally, Valerie Jarrett, obviously there are many, many things we could talk about. We haven't at all even talked about the - foreign policy, and I regret that. But before we let you go, I wanted to talk about another proposal that the president has announced - last night - that he said would allow homeowners to save around $3,000 a year by refinancing their mortgages.
The reason I'm bringing that up is, once again, the criticism from the left is it makes a good press release, but the policy really isn't there. The money's not going to be there. Members of Congress aren't going to support this, so that's really for show - and also plays into a Republican narrative that the president's already had three years to put his ideas into practice. It hasn't turned the economy around, so this is why it's time to give somebody else a chance.
JARRETT: Well, it's time to go back to the practices that got us into this mess to begin with? I mean, what the Republicans have been saying is, let's get rid of the rules of the road. You know, let's not hold banks accountable. And what the president is saying is look, the housing crisis - not only has it hurt so many individual families, that is having a devastating impact on our economy, and a devastating impact on the families involved. So let's forge together and figure out a solution.
And so, there are two different perspectives. Do you want to get rid of the rules of the road? Do you want to let everybody just do whatever they want to do? Or do you want to really look out for the consumer, look out for the American people, and figure out ways to create and foster an environment where companies want to double down on America?
We had a meeting here at the White House a few weeks ago, where the president invited companies from around the country who had outsourced jobs outside of the United States, and then made the decision to bring those jobs back. Well, we need to be encouraging that. We need to be investing in manufacturing and small businesses. We need to be creating a workforce where Americans can compete in a global marketplace because they have the necessary skills. And we need fairness, and we need a sustainable, strong economy that's durable for the future. That's the president's vision; that's what he outlined last night.
In the days and weeks ahead, you will see considerable more detail than he could possibly contain in one speech and - flush out all of the different policy programs that he announced last night, and look forward to engaging with the Republicans because the American people, Michel, they expect the elected officials who represent them to take action.
And the president's strong message last night is, he's going to take action. He's willing to work with anyone in the chamber. He's also going to do everything within his power in the executive branch, to move our country forward.
MARTIN: Valerie Jarrett is senior adviser to President Obama, and she was kind enough to join us from the White House. Valerie Jarrett, thank you so much for speaking with us.
JARRETT: Thank you, Michel. Have a great day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.