RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We're covering President Obama's State of the Union speech this morning, and our own Steve Inskeep joined colleagues from a range of beats to check some of the facts and add some context.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And we begin with the president's upbeat assessment of the economy last night. He said the economy is creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our unemployment rate is now lower than it was before the financial crisis.
INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley was listening in. And, Scott, is that the full picture?
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Well, it was certainly the most full-throated defense of the economy we've heard from President Obama. He's usually been very careful about describing the economic turnaround. He doesn't want to seem out of touch with people who are still struggling, and he doesn't want to be caught short if there's another slowdown as has happened in years past. So this was the time when I think he really put caution aside and said, hey, the economy is really coming back.
INSKEEP: He said that, and the unemployment rate is much lower than it was. But he went on to say wages are starting to rise again. How much improvement has there been, and how good are these jobs?
HORSLEY: That's kind of been the missing piece, the wage piece. In November, we saw really strong wage growth, outpacing inflation by a large margin. And one of the things that was happening is the jobs that were being added most quickly were the jobs that tend to pay more, like construction and manufacturing. Unfortunately, those trends reversed in December. So what we have is wages that are just barely staying ahead of inflation. In theory, as the job market gets tighter, wages will pick up. But there's still a lot of slack out there, and this is a decades-old problem.
INSKEEP: Scott Horsley, stay with us. We're going to move on to check some facts on education here. Again, the president said the news was good.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
OBAMA: We believed we could prepare our kids for a more competitive world. And today, our younger students have earned the highest math and reading scores on record. Our high school graduation rate has hit an all-time high. More Americans finished college than ever before.
INSKEEP: Claudio Sanchez is part of NPR's Ed team, has been listening along with us. Claudio, is the news really that good?
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Steve, what the president said is true. But according to the international data and comparisons of U.S. kids to the rest of the world, they're not doing very well at all, especially in mathematics. I mean, there's been improvement but not nearly enough. American 15-year-olds, for example, are still doing very poorly in math and science. Even nations like Vietnam have higher average scores than U.S. kids.
As for the data on college completion, again, the president is saying yeah, those are pretty high these days. But we have very high dropout rates, especially in community colleges where it's up to 60 percent at the very time that the president is proposing two years tuition-free community college.
INSKEEP: OK, let's talk about something that was barely in this speech, immigration. The president only had a few phrases, and we're going to check one of them. He said no one benefits when a hard-working mom is snatched from her child, talking about family separation there. NPR's John Burnett covers the border for us. John, how does that sentiment compare with the president's record?
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Well, his new focus is on deporting felons, not families. That's the catchword of the administration, and so Immigration Customs Enforcement is looking more at deporting immigrants who they say threaten national security and public safety. And they're trying not to separate families. And there have been fewer deportations overall in this last fiscal year compared to years past. So Obama's trying to shake that criticism of being the deporter-in-chief.
But in fact, the administration has been heatedly criticized for deporting mothers and children. Central American women and their kids have been coming across the border in south Texas. We heard about the humanitarian crisis last summer. And so now they're actually being detained in the so-called family-friendly detention centers in south Texas and being hurried through the asylum process, according to immigrant advocates, and then sent back home very quickly. And so there's really a lot of people up in arms about what they say is an inhumane policy.
INSKEEP: The speech also included a long section on elevating American politics. That's something that the president said he wanted - elevating the discourse and focusing on things where the two parties agree.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
OBAMA: We may go at it in campaign season, but surely we can agree that the right to vote is sacred.
INSKEEP: OK, reference to voting rights there. Everybody does agree in theory, I suppose. NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson's covering the issues. Carrie, how deep is that agreement when you get down to the question of how to ensure the right to vote?
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Republicans in Congress say the right to vote is very important to them. But they differ substantially with President Obama and members of the Democratic Party on Capitol Hill about what to do in response to a 2013 Supreme Court decision that upended the system, that had policed states mostly in the South and election changes they would make. The old system required the federal government or a federal judge to approve any election changes, and now that the Supreme Court has acted, that system has been thrown into chaos.
The president and many members of his party on Capitol Hill want new legislation to beef up those provisions. But just last week, Congressman Bob Goodlatte, who runs the House Judiciary Committee, a Republican from Virginia, told me he thinks there's already substantial protection, and it's not necessary to make any of those changes moving forward.
INSKEEP: Meaning nothing is needed, according to Republicans.
JOHNSON: He does want to enforce the existing law in the books. But he doesn't feel the need to go back in and tinker. It's important, Steve, because President Obama is making a big push on this. We already know he's going in March to Selma for the 50th anniversary of that march on the bridge.
INSKEEP: OK. That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. The president spoke relatively little in the state of the union address last night about foreign policy. But as we continue to check our facts here, he did mention a major threat in the Middle East.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
OBAMA: In Iraq and Syria, American leadership, including our military power, is stopping ISIL's advance.
INSKEEP: He went on to say the U.S. is still working on degrading and destroying that group, which is also called Islamic State or ISIS. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has been covering this story. Are they stopping ISIS's advance?
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, the advance hasn't been stopped, but it has been stalled. And it's basically been stalled since September because coalition airstrikes put the group back on its heels.
INSKEEP: What about destroying ISIS, the next step here?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, that really requires armed rebel groups and that part of the equation has barely happened. The Pentagon suggested this week that some trainers could make their way to Syria by spring. But so far, that's more talk than it is action.
INSKEEP: Wait a minute because the administration has been talking for a couple of years about training rebels. And you're saying - now they're saying that maybe in a few more months, they would get a larger presence there.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's exactly right. The administration's been saying it's a very complicated issue. They want to make sure they don't arm the wrong people. So there's been a very glacial process.
INSKEEP: OK. Thanks, Dina. Now the president also spoke, as he has many times, of his determination to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, where many people gathered up in the last several years have been kept. NPR's David Welna covers the Pentagon. Is the president getting to that goal?
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Steve, shutting down Guantanamo is actually a task that Obama set for himself at the beginning of his presidency. And I think it's fair to say he has made some progress, especially in the last couple of months. The president said he's reduced the prison population there by half. And that's true. What Obama did not say last night was something he has said elsewhere, and that is that even he thinks that a few dozen men being held there are too dangerous to release but that there is just insufficient evidence to convict them in a constitutional court of law. He did not mention them, much less say what their fate should be. But that's a real intractable problem of Guantanamo.
INSKEEP: One more thing to talk about here as we go through the state of the union speech, and that is energy. Our correspondent Scott Horsley is still with us. And, Scott, let's listen to a statement the president made.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
OBAMA: Every three weeks, we bring online as much solar power as we did in all of 2008.
INSKEEP: Eye-popping statistic there on solar power, which the president has promoted and been criticized for promoting. It sounds great. Is it true?
HORSLEY: It is true. Of course, solar power is still a very small piece of our overall electric pie, but it is growing rapidly. You have to remember the reason the Solyndra company failed was because solar panels were getting very cheap. And that means they're getting popular.
INSKEEP: Now, while we're on energy, Scott, I want to mention the Republican response, Senator Joni Ernst, newly elected senator, mostly tried to focus on what Republicans want to do now that they control both Houses of Congress. But she referred along the way to an energy project, which she did not actually call an energy project. This is what she said.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
SENATOR JONI ERNST: One you've probably heard about is the Keystone jobs bill.
INSKEEP: Scott Horsley, what is the Keystone jobs bill?
HORSLEY: She's talking, of course, about the Keystone XL oil pipeline that would carry oil from the Canadian tar sands down to the U.S. Gulf Coast. It would create some jobs. The State Department estimates it would create something like 4,000 construction jobs for a couple of years. After that, there'd only be about 50 jobs to operate the pipeline. But it would have some economic impact. It would boost our GDP by about two one-hundredths of one percent.
INSKEEP: Now, President Obama also talked about job creation through infrastructure, although he says he's going much bigger, more than one project. How real are his ideas?
HORSLEY: Obama has long been a fan of public works projects as a way to put construction workers back on the job and also build things that pay long-term dividends for the country. But the challenge is paying for that. He has floated the idea of doing so through corporate tax reform. The president has opposed the idea of raising the gasoline tax, which is the way we've traditionally paid for most transportation public works in this country. Some supporters say if ever there were a time to raise the gasoline tax, it's now when gas is selling for just over $2 a gallon.
INSKEEP: Scott, thanks as always.
HORSLEY: My pleasure.
INSKEEP: And thanks also to our colleagues who helped with our fact check of the state of the union, NPR's Claudio Sanchez, Carrie Johnson, John Burnett, David Welna and Dina Temple-Raston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.