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What to expect in Biden's Oval Office address about the debt ceiling deal

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

This is live Special Coverage from NPR News. I'm Juana Summers. In just a minute, President Biden will deliver the first Oval Office address of his presidency. It comes just a day after Congress passed a bipartisan deal to lift the debt ceiling, narrowly avoiding the deadline for the country to face financial default. As we await the president's remarks, I'm here with NPR's Tamara Keith, Claudia Grisales and Scott Horsley. Tam, you are at the White House. What can you tell us about what we're expecting this evening?

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: We are expecting something of a victory lap from a president who has long prided himself on being able to get big, bipartisan deals - in this case, the deal to avoid a crisis, to avert what could have been a major economic hit to the United States. And in part, he's coming out to get credit for that crisis averted and also sell the bipartisan agreement as a win.

SUMMERS: So we're talking a day after Congress passed this deal. The president has not yet signed it yet. Do you have any indication of when that might happen?

KEITH: Well, they're waiting for enrollment. That is the process of the bill actually getting moved from the Congress over to the president. Of course, it's not a great distance, but it's some paperwork. They're expecting him to be able to sign it as soon as tomorrow but certainly before June 5, which is the X-date where the U.S. would default on its debt.

SUMMERS: And, Tam, we know because we've both covered politics for so long, these speeches - this is the president.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SUMMERS: And we're joined now by NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales, and NPR's chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley.

Tam, you're at the White House, so I want to start with you. And we were talking earlier. You said this was going to be a victory lap of sorts. The president definitely gave a list of achievements here. But what was the goal? What do you think that the White House is hoping that people take away from this speech?

KEITH: Certainly, the message that President Biden bookended this speech with was about bipartisanship. He started by talking about how, when the parties work together, they can get things done for America.

SUMMERS: Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: My fellow Americans, when I ran for president, I was told the days of bipartisanship are over and that Democrats and Republicans can no longer work together. But I refuse to believe that because America can never give in to that way of thinking.

KEITH: And then he ended the speech similarly, saying that bipartisanship is hard. But no matter how tough politics get, the people in America need to see each other as Americans. It's an interesting pitch. It's also a pitch that feels very much like the president's reelection campaign. Although he has not yet done an official event - campaign event and may not for months, clearly, this speech, although it was an official speech in the Oval Office, had a reelection pitch, one about a president who can get things done, who can govern and who is trying to speak to unity. At the same time, the other half of the speech was a lot of stuff I've heard in remarks that he's given where he's really quite critical of Republican politicians and their ideas.

SUMMERS: That's right. Let's talk about Republicans and their role in this. Claudia Grisales, you cover Congress. You heard President Biden today thank House Speaker Kevin McCarthy by name. Some of the credit for this deal getting across the finish line, of course, goes to him. Let's listen to what Biden had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: I want to commend Senator - Speaker McCarthy. You know, he and I, we and our teams - we were able to get along and get things done. We were straightforward with one another, completely honest with one another and respectful with one another. Both sides operated in good faith.

SUMMERS: Claudia, what role did McCarthy play here in helping get this agreement together and also keeping his members on board with it?

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: A pretty large one. And we should note that kind of moment for the president - commending McCarthy - we also heard similar remarks from McCarthy himself, commending Biden, commending his negotiators that he sent into the room to come up with this final agreement. And McCarthy was coming from behind, a disadvantage. He is a rookie. So were his negotiators. They have not been in this position before to have such high-stakes talks, to try and push this through on such a tight deadline. But he was able to bring the president to the negotiating table. It started essentially in terms of these talks with the GOP wish list bill of demands that he pushed through his narrowly controlled chamber with only a handful of members in his conference giving him that margin.

And in terms of who he sent eventually into that room with the president's negotiators, it was a really good signal in terms of reading the room. He didn't send members of the House Freedom Caucus, for example - conservative members. No, he sent moderates. He sent Congressman Garret Graves of Louisiana and Patrick McHenry of North Carolina. And from there, we could see they would head in that direction of trying to reach a deal that would pull in moderates both from both parties and both chambers.

SUMMERS: These are two men who do not have a long history of being on the opposite sides of the negotiating table together in a way such as this. Do you think that what we saw here and their ability to get this deal across the finish line signals more opportunities for bipartisanship between Biden and McCarthy?

GRISALES: It's going to be hard to see them to repeat such a success story. Already, after the deal was put together and it was pushed through the House chamber, we heard rumblings from members of that House Freedom Caucus talking about McCarthy's role and perhaps if they should question it, if they should look at taking steps to oust him. So it really illustrates how much of a risk this was for McCarthy to be able to pull this through when the stakes were that high. That all said, when we look at divided government and how partisan we see things now today in Congress, it's hard to imagine that lightning will strike twice and we'll see another major opportunity for bipartisanship. I wouldn't rule it out, but it's possible this is a one-off for this session of Congress.

SUMMERS: I want to turn now to NPR's chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley. Scott, I feel like we talked almost every day in the run up to this deal getting finalized about the debt ceiling showdown. But big picture, how much of an impact have we seen on the economy from this?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Yeah, almost none, really. I mean, the powers that be in the economy always just assume this was Kabuki theater and that Congress would have cut a deal. And that's sort of what happened. What was frustrating about this whole exercise is that the weapons were so powerful and the battlefield was so tiny. You know, the threat of a debt default is the equivalent of a nuclear bomb in the economy. And yet in the end - and it's terrific that they defused that nuclear bomb. Don't get me wrong. That's very important. It would have been disastrous had we defaulted on the government debt. But the deal, in the end, accomplishes so little.

You know, the president said tonight that there's so much more to do, and he's right about that. This spending agreement, the caps on discretionary spending, according to the CBO, will reduce the deficit by $1.5 trillion over the next decade. That sounds like a lot. It's 7% of the deficits that would be accumulated over that period. This deal doesn't touch the major drivers of the government's debt, Social Security and Medicare. The president bragged about keeping those off the table. But if nothing is done, everybody who depends on Social Security is going to get a 25% benefit cut a decade from now. If nothing is done, Medicare beneficiaries, Medicare providers will see serious cuts in less than 10 years.

At some point, these policymakers have to get serious about those big drivers of spending in this country. And as the president said, that's going to mean raising revenue. It's going to be dealing seriously with the spending drivers, and it's going to be about going after tax cheats. Well, this cut - this deal takes away $20 million that the president had won for beefing up the IRS. So it's good that they avoided the default. But it's a very disappointing deal in the big picture.

SUMMERS: I mean, Scott, you're in a unique position. You've covered the White House. You now cover the economy. What does this say? What does this tell us about this country's ability to govern?

HORSLEY: It's precarious. You know, the Fitch bond rating service came out today and said they're leaving the negative watch on U.S. government debt that they put in during this exercise not because they have doubts about the U.S. economy. The U.S. economy has exceptional strengths, Fitch said. It's got great GDP per capita. It's got a dynamic business environment. Just today we learned that U.S. employers added 339,000 jobs last month. I mean, the U.S. economy is doing wonderfully if the people in Washington would not screw it up. And yet Fitch is leaving that negative rating in place because they have serious doubts about our government policymakers' ability to address the real challenges that are confronting us. In fact, they point to a steady deterioration in governance over the last 15 years, increased polarization, partisanship, the contested 2020 election, the brinkmanship over the debt limit. So as strong as the U.S. economy is, there's a real threat that our policymakers are going to run us into a ditch.

SUMMERS: If you're just joining us, we just heard President Biden speaking from the Oval Office, taking something of a victory lap following the passage of a bipartisan deal to raise the debt ceiling. He said in that speech that he will sign the bill into law tomorrow. We heard him say that the stakes couldn't have been higher. A crisis has been averted. He said that a default would have destroyed our nation's credit rating.

Tam, over to you here. How worried is the White House about what the rating agency Fitch said today - that it would keep its negative watch on the country's rating?

KEITH: So many people have probably forgotten this because it's now ancient history. But in 2011, when the S&P ratings agency downgraded the U.S. debt, it happened after a debt ceiling deal had already been inked. And the S&P has not changed the U.S. credit rating since then. Fitch is a different agency, and they, as Scott said, are concerned about political instability and partisan disagreements that have been on display. And there's no real way of knowing whether a downgrade could come.

Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at the briefing today - she was asked about it at the White House press briefing. And she said that these are not good reasons to downgrade the U.S. debt - that, in fact, there was this bipartisan deal and that President Biden has been able to get several bipartisan deals through in a closely divided Congress. So, you know, governing is happening. And I have to say that she really came out ready to answer this question and to argue that U.S. Treasurys are still the most reliable investment vehicle around. So there may have been, you know, something of a public working of the refs.

SUMMERS: And this speech, of course, was in the Oval Office - the first time President Biden has given an address like this from the Oval Office. But, Tam, how rare are these kinds of occasions?

KEITH: Well, now, they are quite rare. The last Oval Office address was March 12, 2020 - former President Donald Trump shutting down air travel as the coronavirus pandemic took hold. But go back further - President Ronald Reagan held 29 Oval Office speeches, breaking into primetime programming. But, you know, there's been this combination of changes in the media landscape and also changes in presidential preference that have moved these addresses away from the Oval Office. But still, some of the most iconic speeches in modern times have been delivered from the Oval. Think George W. Bush on 9/11.

Arguably, this was not an iconic speech. I think we could safely say that. It's probably not going to be one that is remembered forever. And and it also wasn't, technically speaking, primetime. It happened at 7 p.m. on the East Coast, which, by almost any definition, is not actually primetime. The networks did carry the speech live, but, you know, 7 p.m. is more like happy hour, especially in other time zones in the U.S.

SUMMERS: And Scott, I mean, you've covered a number of presidents. Are there other Oval addresses that stand out to you, and how does the speech that we just heard from President Biden compare?

HORSLEY: Well, like I say, the Oval Office automatically adds a level of gravitas to a presidential address. When you're seated behind the Resolute Desk, people expect you to be resolute and to look resolute and sound resolute. And the trappings were there. But, again, we're talking about a government that succeeded in defusing a bomb that one house in the Congress had planted for itself. That's really all you can say about this deal - is that it avoided the worst self-inflicted own goal that this country might have had. It doesn't actually move us forward in any concrete way.

SUMMERS: And Claudia, we heard the president say that both sides here operated in good faith. And yet, at various points over the last few weeks, that is not the message that we heard from either the White House or Republicans on Capitol Hill. How were they able to maintain a cordial relationship here?

GRISALES: Yes, there were a lot of low moments during the negotiations, especially in these last two weeks. I go back to Friday, May 19. That's when one of the negotiators, Patrick McHenry, said, we're calling a pause. And they told us later, in terms of that moment, that they were frustrated behind closed doors, and they thought, let's take our message to the microphones. Let's go to the public. Let's make our arguments to the American people and see if we can get these talks moving in our direction again. And so Republicans were pretty savvy in terms of using those microphones, in terms of delivering those messages, in terms of trying to get their arguments across to the American people. And we saw a lot of disappointment with Democrats who said that the White House was not saying enough. They were not defending their positions enough.

But ultimately, we saw them come together in the end. And it really illustrated, when we hear from Biden complimenting McCarthy and vice versa, that, in the end, they were negotiating in good faith. We heard that from both sides. And they got across a lot of treacherous moments when it seemed like these talks were about to collapse.

KEITH: Claudia, this is Tam - just jumping in here. And as you say, the White House was - the president was getting a lot of criticism for being quite quiet right at this moment...

GRISALES: Yeah.

KEITH: ...When the talks had really intensified. And meanwhile, Kevin McCarthy was, like, holding court...

GRISALES: Right.

KEITH: ...In the hallways every couple of hours, giving updates.

GRISALES: (Laughter) It was exhausting, yes.

KEITH: And, you know, part of me wonders if this was a speech where President Biden was stepping in and saying, all right, I'm going to get the last word - yes, I was quiet when the negotiations were happening, in part because they didn't want to mess up the negotiations by, you know, claiming victory on some of these things that they ultimately feel like they won on.

GRISALES: Yeah, I think that's definitely what we saw happen. And it's a smart move. We already saw Republicans say what they saw left on the cutting room floor in terms of provisions that they want to push for now in Congress. And it's interesting seeing the president do the same and say, look, they turned down a lot of offers from us, too. And we're going to move forward, and we're going to fight for those in the future.

SUMMERS: Scott, I want to go back to you here. The president was clearly trying to take some credit here for the continued low unemployment rate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Unemployment is at 3.7%. More Americans are working today than ever in the history of this country, and inflation has dropped 10 straight months in a row.

SUMMERS: But how much credit can he really take for the unemployment rate and for falling inflation?

HORSLEY: Well, presidents always get more credit and take more blame for the job market than they probably deserve. There's no question that the labor market is starting off this summer blazing hot. It's a really impressive performance by employers month after month after month - more than 4 million jobs added just in the last 12 months, which is not something I think most forecasters would have expected. The unemployment rate actually ticked up a little bit last month, and the unemployment rate for African Americans, which the president had boasted about hitting a record low the previous month, ticked up as well, to 5.6%.

But there's no question - the U.S. economy is doing really well. And if we had not had all this unnecessary, unforced drama over the debt limit, that would be what the president could devote his entire remarks to today. Instead, he has to come out and say, look, we've just spent the last two weeks scaring the heck out of people thinking the federal government of the world's biggest economy might not be willing to pay the bills that it owes. And guess what? We narrowly avoided that.

SUMMERS: Tam, I mean, this was not a campaign speech, of course. It was a speech in the Oval Office, and yet it is very hard for me to listen to this without thinking about it in the context of the 2024 campaign, of which President Biden is a candidate for reelection. How critical is this sort of messaging for that campaign? What do we know about public opinion? What are polls showing about how it's being received?

KEITH: Yeah, the message that President Biden is delivering is one that, you know, he also ran on in 2020, which is this idea that he can get things done, that he - you know, he may not be the most glamorous candidate. He may not be the candidate that everybody dreams of and gets excited about. And polls certainly indicate that there is some unease among the electorate, even among Democrats, with him running for reelection at 80 years old, among other things. But in the end, the president and his campaign and his advisers believe that that they can do this sort of multipronged message that is both, hey, look, I'm getting things done for Americans. Look at the CHIPS Act and the bill - the infrastructure bill and all of these other things. Look at this bipartisan stuff. And then also, oh, my gosh, Republicans are extreme. You couldn't dare want any of these Republican candidates in office. It's the - you know, compare me to the alternative not the Almighty, strategy for president.

SUMMERS: Tam, I'm curious. I mean, you've covered the Biden campaign and now the White House. As you listen to him, is there anything specific that stands out to you about the way that he delivered this message - anything that strikes you as new or different here?

KEITH: There was not a lot new or different, I will be perfectly honest. He delivers a very consistent message wherever he is. He is always more optimistic about America today than he has ever been before. And that is a message that is often well received by the audiences who he's delivering it to. And every time he says it, he says it like he means it. But, you know, we heard a lot of lines that we hear from him in every single one of his speeches. But you know what the difference is? This one was being carried live by networks, admittedly on a Friday night, or early evening.

(LAUGHTER)

SUMMERS: Claudia, I want to ask you - you've been watching the dynamics on the Hill. Did Biden have much friction from Democrats, from members of his own party up there at Capitol Hill?

GRISALES: Yes, we did see a good amount of friction as the negotiations were ongoing. As I mentioned, we did see frustration that the president wasn't defending his part of the negotiations, those talks and what provisions he was fighting for. We saw members just take matters into their own hands and say, I talked to the White House, and they've offered X number of cuts and these provisions, and they've all been turned down. And so it was interesting...

SUMMERS: Yeah.

GRISALES: ...Over time seeing Democrats evolve and embrace this deal in the end and really help push it through.

SUMMERS: Yeah.

GRISALES: They were a big factor in pushing it through both chambers.

SUMMERS: And that is it for our live Special Coverage. In a moment, we'll return to our regular programming, and we'll have much more analysis on our air and across all of NPR's other platforms.

Thanks to our crew of correspondents for joining me - NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales and NPR's chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley. I'd also like to thank all the producers and editors, engineers, everyone that keeps us on air. I'm Juana Summers. You have been listening to live Special Coverage from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noah Caldwell
Jason Fuller
Juana Summers
Juana Summers is a co-host of NPR's All Things Considered, alongside Ailsa Chang, Ari Shapiro and Mary Louise Kelly. She joined All Things Considered in June 2022.
Tamara Keith
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. In that time, she has chronicled the final years of the Obama administration, covered Hillary Clinton's failed bid for president from start to finish and thrown herself into documenting the Trump administration, from policy made by tweet to the president's COVID diagnosis and the insurrection. In the final year of the Trump administration and the first year of the Biden administration, she focused her reporting on the White House response to the COVID-19 pandemic, breaking news about global vaccine sharing and plans for distribution of vaccines to children under 12.
Scott Horsley
Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
Claudia Grisales
Claudia Grisales is a congressional correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.