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Obama to Raise Federal Minimum Wage; State of the Union Speech Tonight; Trailblazers Among Mrs. Obama's Guests; Snow, Ice Move into Deep South; Flights Cancelled; Sen. Reid on State of the Union; State of the Union Speech

Aired January 28, 2014 - 13:00   ET


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, hours ahead of his State of the Union address, President Obama announces he'll go it alone to launch one of his priorities. But Republicans say not so fast, they're not going to sit back and get trampled.

And right now, heroes, activists, even "Duck Dynasty" cast members get ready to attend the State of the Union as special guests. Will the sideshows overshadow the substance of the speech?

And right now, a rare southern snow storm hitting New Orleans, Birmingham and Charleston. There are thousands of flights already cancelled and officials are warning drivers to stay off the roads.

Hi there, I'm Brianna Keilar in Washington in for Wolf Blitzer. Well, he said he wouldn't wait for Congress to get things done. Now, President Obama says he'll take executive action to raise the minimum wage for federal contract workers. The announcement comes just hours before the president delivers his State of the Union speech tonight. He'll be facing Americans who are worried about where the country is headed.

In a new NBC News "Wall Street Journal" poll, only 31 percent say the country is better off since President Obama took office. A combined 68 percent say it's either worse off or in the same place. And tonight, he'll try to reassure Americans by focusing on issues like the wage gap.


(voice-over): President Obama pushing forward in his bid to close the gap between rich and poor. He'll tell lawmakers tonight, he's not waiting on them to raise the minimum wage. At least for Americans working on government projects. His executive action will force any company signing a new contract with the feds to pay workers at least $10.10 an hour. Almost $3.00 more than the current federal minimum wage. Janitors and construction workers all seeing a boost in pay, according to the White House. It was just one vow from last year's State of the Union.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: -- raise the minimum wage to $9.00 an hour.

KEILAR: That didn't get traction in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Remember that passionate call for a vote on new gun laws?

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The families of Newtown deserve a vote.

KEILAR: It failed. And the push for an immigration overhaul?

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Now is the time to do it. Now is the time to get it done.

KEILAR: Stalled on Capitol Hill. Now Obama wants action and with the clock ticking on his second term, he's ready to tell Congress to get on board or step aside.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm also going to act on my own if Congress is deadlocked.

KEILAR: Executive actions, rallying businesses, colleges and local leaders to the cause, and developing programs that don't require Congressional approval, all part of Obama's plan to bypass Congress.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He's an American citizen. And it stands to reason that he might be frustrated with Congress since most American citizens are.


KEILAR (on camera): Now, the president's speech tonight follows a difficult and frustrating year. He hopes certainly that this is a chance to reboot and to move forward.

Let's bring in our Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger to talk about this. So, Gloria, we look at our latest CNN poll of polls.


KEILAR: The president's job approval rating down from 52 percent a year ago, it's now 44 percent. How does that affect him going into tonight?

BORGER: Look, he's not popular and the Congress is even less popular. And, you know, remember, he came into office saying to the -- to Americans that he was going to change the way Washington works. Remember that, Brianna?


BORGER: Well, now, he's kind of admitting, OK, I couldn't change the way Washington works so I'm going to work around Washington. OK? And I'm going to do, through executive order, some things that I'd like to get done, whether it's on the minimum wage for federal workers, as you point out, or maybe some climate change issues that he can do through regulation. But he's sort of taking the public's side against the Congress, if you will, because he knows that that's one area that he may actually have some traction.

KEILAR: So, let's talk about this decision, this executive action that's going to be a huge part of his speech tonight, raising the --

BORGER: Right.

KEILAR: -- minimum wage for federal contract workers. These are under new federal contracts. Let's talk about what House speaker, John Boehner, told reporters. He said, quote, "This idea that he's just going to go it alone, I have to remind him we do have a Constitution, and the Congress writes the laws, and the president's job is to execute the laws faithfully. And if he tries to ignore this, he's going to run into a brick wall." Now, Boehner went on to say, "We're just not going to sit here and let the president trample all over us." Is the president trampling all over Congress?

BORGER: He -- Brianna, he's doing what presidents have done before him, including Republican presidents, like Ronald Reagan, who did more executive orders than the president has done to this date. So, look, presidents have the power to use executive action. He can't legislate immigration reform through an executive order, for example. But he can change some regulations. So, what he's saying is, I'm going to go down that track and I'm going to try and do what I can do, but I'm also going to try and get some things done in the Congress.

And, you know, I think he's playing an outside game, but then he's got to try and figure out how to play an inside game to get -- to get a few things done. So it's a very difficult needle to thread here, Brianna.

KEILAR: That's right because he is going to say tonight, there are some things, perhaps immigration he wants to work --


KEILAR: -- with Congress on. But let's talk about the thing we're going to hear over and over, opportunity, opportunity tonight. He'll be talking about the middle class. We'll also, I expect, to hear this from the Republican rebuttal or rebuttals. How important is this issue for the future of both parties, opportunities for the middle class?

BORGER: It's very important. And I think that what you're going to hear the president talk about is, less this income inequality we have been hearing so much about which sounds a little academic to a lot of people, but it's mobility. One thing people can really grab on to here is that the poor are not rising to the middle class.

And rather than portray it as a fight between the middle class and the wealthy and the poor and the wealthy, I think the turn the president might take, and we'll have to wait until tonight to hear it, is that he wants to increase the opportunity for economic mobility for people who are at the bottom of the ladder to climb up the ladder. Because there have been some recent studies done, one that was done by Harvard, which actually shows that in the last generation, people have not been anymore able to climb from the bottom rungs of the ladder to the middle or the top rungs of the ladder. That's in a generation like 50 years here. And that's a problem, I think, we'll hear him talk about tonight. KEILAR: Yes, and that's why the buzz word is opportunity this evening. Gloria Borger, --

BORGER: Right.

KEILAR: -- see you tonight.


KEILAR: Now, it is a State of the Union tradition, of course, to invite special guests to sit in the first lady's box during the speech. This year's honorees include Mary Barra, the first female CEO of General Motors, Antoinette Tuft, a bookkeeper who talked down a would-be school shooter, you probably remember her, immigration activist, Christian Avila, and Jason Collins, the NBA's first openly gay player. Also, Boston bombing survivors, Carlos Arredondo and Jeff Bauman, who were captured in a gripping photo right after the tragedy. We'll also see fire chief, Gary Bird, from Moore, Oklahoma, the site of a very devastating tornado.

And be sure to watch CNN's special coverage of the president's State of the Union address tonight, starting at 7:00 eastern. I will see you then.

Now, 140 million people are under winter advisories right now. The bracing for an onslaught of snow and ice. It's a storm that probably wouldn't make northerners blink an eye. But this storm is taking aim at the deep south where resources to battle such weather are few.

Our Chad Myers is in New Orleans. Chad, who is getting the worst of this right now?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: You know, east Texas, just north of us here, Lafayette, up to about Baton Rouge and across into Mississippi, Montgomery, and it's even snowing in Atlanta. I have a tower cam from Atlanta. My wife lives (INAUDIBLE) it with me, about eight miles north in a tight high-rise and she said she can't see downtown at all now, because the snow is now thick enough it's just blocking visibility. And so, that's what we're seeing here in Atlanta. This right here is 33 and rain. In about one hour, it's going to be 32, 31 and rain.

So, what would be a beautiful sight here to show you the trolley, the street cars going up and down, one named desire, maybe not, they're shut down because the power up here -- we desire the street cars today. The power up here probably will go down today, and so therefore, that trolley, that street car, would come to a dead stop with nowhere to go, no power. So, they have turned that off. They said, no, we're going to run buses instead. And so, that's what we have here, buses going up and down the trolley tracks.

Now, Brianna, I was born in Buffalo. I was raised in Nebraska. And when I put a hat on, it now is cold. Because for all morning long, it was like, OK, 40, 45, it's fine. It's not that anymore. It's sleeting. It's snowing. The rain is coming down and this water on the ground is about to freeze. KEILAR: Well, Chad, I grew up in southern California, so I can definitely commiserate with all of the folks in warmer climates who don't know what to do with this. Tell us a little bit about the forecast and what we should be expecting really kind of across the board.

MYERS: What has happened now, that cold air that's really been bottled up in Canada has come down to the Deep South. And a storm, a small one, but still a storm, is coming out of the Gulf of Mexico. It will put down one half inch of ice right down here where I'm standing in the next three to four hours. And by 8:00, we won't be able to walk around here, because there is not a salt truck anywhere around here. They said there is salt. But, you know, the ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, is not that far away, just throw some saltwater on it. It doesn't work that way. They can't get all of their bridges salted at one time. Because essentially, where I'm standing is below sea level, a lot of this town, a lot of the highways all on bridges, going over bayous, going over lakes. 55 miles of I-10 right now shut down because of that. And the forecast is what you see is what you get, and it's only going to get worse, at least for the next six, 12, and in some spots, in the northeast in the Carolinas, at least 18 more hours of what you see right now.

KEILAR: That's right. Bridges freeze first so I think it's time to stay inside --

MYERS: You bet.

KEILAR: -- and bring those board games out. Chad Myers, thank you.

We know Harry Reid weighing in on the upcoming State of the Union. Up next, CNN's exclusive interview with the Senate majority leader.


KEILAR: Well, in the end, a lot of what the president wants to get done will hinge on Congress. And our Chief Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash is joining me now from Capitol Hill to talk about this -- or I should say, she's here in Washington to talk about this. Just moments ago, she sat down for an exclusive interview with Senate majority leader, Harry Reid. And, Dana, I know he has the State of the Union on his mind, but he's also thinking a lot about 2014.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Oh, yes, absolutely. Look, the president is going to come here to talk to Congress about what he wants to do and the remaining years of his term. But so much of that is going to hinge on what happens here in the United States Senate in the next year.

And nobody has more to lose when it comes to that personally than Senator Harry Reid, because he is the Senate majority leader. It is no secret, you know this Brianna, you covered the president, that his popularity has dipped a lot. It was never very good in some of the red states where Democrats are the most vulnerable and poses the most potential for Republicans to take over the Senate. I asked Harry Reid about that and whether or not he would encourage Democrats to have the president keep their distance and he doubled down. He did not say no. Listen to this.


SEN. HARRY REID (D), MAJORITY LEADER: Any time the president of the United States appears supporting a candidate, it helps. We - you know, Ronald Reagan hurt me by coming to the state all of the time. Barack Obama is personally a very popular guy and people love this man, they love his family. Of course, with what the Republicans have been doing, trying to denigrate him with what's happened with the rollout of Obamacare, but things -- even this week, his numbers are going up again.

BASH: So you would encourage some of your most vulnerable Senate Democratic candidates to invite President Obama to appear with them?

REID: Yes, and they will.


BASH: And, Brianna, there's actually going to be a meeting at the building you cover, the White House, to discuss this very thing, Reid divulged to us, later this week to discuss just exactly where the president will go. Maybe you're going to actually have a surprise trip to the red, red state of Arkansas, maybe even - he'll even go to go to the red, red state of Alaska, if Harry Reid has anything to do with it. We're obviously going to be fascinated to see what those senators think of what Reid is recommending.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: And the fascinating thing about this, Dana, is it's -- this is completely counter to conventional thinking.

BASH: Yes. Exactly.

KEILAR: I mean you would almost like put money on the president not going to Arkansas, for instance. Do you really think that some of these vulnerable Democrats in Louisiana, in Arkansas, in Alaska, are they going to want help from President Obama really, other than when it comes to fund-raising?

BASH: I was just going to say, they'll take his money and they're already getting his money - or the money that he's helping raise, I should say. You know, maybe the best way to answer that for now is to tell the story that you covered in North Carolina. That the president went to North Carolina and Senator Kay Hagan decided to stay here in Washington and not go down and be with the president. You can bet, and you know this because we have seen it, that if the president would be beneficial to her, help her, she would have been there in a heartbeat because that day there wasn't anything huge going on that she had to be here in Washington for, at least when it comes to her main job, which is voting.

KEILAR: Yes, she wasn't exactly a tie breaker on a vote or anything that day.

BASH: Yes.

KEILAR: All right, Dana Bash, thanks so much. Great interview.

BASH: Thanks, Bri.

KEILAR: And you can see Dana's full interview with Harry Reid tonight during our special coverage of the State of the Union. That starts at 7:00 p.m.

And still ahead, the curse of the response to the State of the Union. Several Republicans have seen their stock drop in the wake of their State of the Union rebuttal. But will this year be different, with a host of Republicans fighting for air time. Up next, we'll take a look with "Crossfire" hosts S.E. Cupp and Stephanie Cutter.


KEILAR: In tonight's State of the Union Address, President Obama will lay out his agenda for the next year and beyond. The speech is steeped in history, but it's changed quite a bit over the decades. From a report on the health and well-being of the nation, to a sort of wish list for the administration. And joining me now to talk about it are two of the hosts of CNN's "Crossfire," Stephanie Cutter and S.E. Cupp.

And I want to ask you both this question, but to you first, S.E. Some people look at the State of Union, they want how effective a president can be. Has it lost its relevance, do you think?

S.E. CUPP, HOST, CNN'S "CROSSFIRE": Well, you know, there's not a whole lot of suspense in the State of the Union. For one, it's not a magical decree. It's not as if whatever the president says in the State of the Union is going to happen over the next year, as the last State of the Union proved. So the intrigue isn't over what he's going to say because it has direct implication over what's going to happen. People tune in, especially I would imagine Democrats running in 2014, tune in to see what they're going to have to own and disown of the president, especially in an election year. But, honestly, I mean unless Queen Latifah marries people tonight, it's not going to have the same kind of effect as some of the other, you know, big tune-in night television shows have.

KEILAR: That would be certainly, I think, something to see.

CUPP: Yes.

KEILAR: I mean, what do you think, Stephanie? How much can the president really accomplish here?

STEPHANIE CUTTER, HOST, CNN'S "CROSSFIRE": Well, I think that, you know, I've worked on more than a half dozen of these speeches and we're forgetting one very important point, that he's not speaking to the people in the room, he's not speaking to people like us, he's speaking at -- to people who are watching his speech on living rooms -- in living rooms, on couches across the country. It's an unfiltered way for the president to get his message out and his agenda out. And, frankly, for a president, it's priceless. KEILAR: And so to that point where you say he's not speaking to the people in the room, I almost wonder sometimes if some of the members of Congress, they feel like almost pawns in the State of the Union game. To that point, some of the special guests that we're seeing that they are inviting, you've got the Fort Lee mayor of bridge-gate fame, you've got one of the stars of "Duck Dynasty," these guests invited by congressmen. You have the father of one of the men killed in Benghazi. I mean, what do you think about that, Stephanie? Is it - is it a bit of a circus, or is this a major political event, or is this just part of the new flavor that comes with it?

CUTTER: Well, I think that members are trying to get their piece of coverage a little bit more than we used to have to face. So, you know, it's getting a little bit, you know, a little bit more circus-like atmosphere. But I think the American people aren't really focused on that. I really think that they're focused about what the president is going to lay out tonight, what he's going to say to them about the state of our union, and he will give an update on the state of our union and lay out where he thinks we need to go in terms of rebuilding the economy from the middle out. We've come a long way. And if we work together, we can rebuild that middle class.

KEILAR: To you, S.E., I want to talk a little bit about the Republican response. Republicans, they have a lot, certainly, to choose from this year. You've got Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, she's giving the official response. Senator Mike Lee has the Tea Party response. Rand Paul, he gave the Tea Party response before. He's now just giving his own Rand Paul response. I mean do you think -- is this a problem at all because it highlights, in a way, that there are so many voices coming out of the Republican Party? And also if -- in a way, it's hard to be heard when you're competing with a president. How does -- how do Republicans really kind of push a message forward when there's so many?

CUPP: Well, the idea that a multitude of voices and a diversity of opinion would be a bad thing or a problem is -- is kind of silly. You know, Republicans are often criticized, especially by Democrats, for not having a lot of diversity. And it's our intellectual diversity that we continually spotlight. And the fact that we have four different opinions, four different responses, all coming from the same party, reaching different kinds of conservative voters is -- is a lucky thing, is a wonderful thing. And I hope all four of them do a great job tonight.

KEILAR: I will call that choose your own GOP adventure then, I think, when it comes to the rebuttals.

CUPP: There you go.

CUTTER: Yes. Multiple choice.

KEILAR: I want to ask - I want to ask you, this is something that's pretty fascinating for a lot of people. They look at the lineup for not just Republicans, but also Democrats, as well, over the past several years. Look at Republicans. Marco Rubio, Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan, Bob McDonnell, Bobby Jindal. Certainly some of them have sunk more than others. I'm not saying they all have. But you sort of have, in a way, I think some people look and they say, oh, there's a bit of a curse, you know. Even if it's someone who's sort of held up, like Marco Rubio is really a potential, I think, GOP front runner, he's come certainly to have some political difficulties. Bob McDonnell, I mean he's just in the doldrums right now.


KEILAR: Kathleen Sebelius, then governor of Kansas, gave the last Democratic response. What do you think, Stephanie? Is there a curse? Is there something to it?

CUTTER: No, I don't think there's a curse. There's been plenty of people who have gone on to be plenty successful who have given the response. I worked with Tim Kaine on his and now he's a leading senator. I think that to the extent that you think Marco Rubio has problems, it has nothing to do with his State of the Union response or the --

KEILAR: Drinking the water during the State of the Union.

CUTTER: Drinking the water. It was, you know -- he handled that well. I think his problem comes from not figuring out where he fits in the Republican Party, trying to work on bipartisan immigration reform and then switching back to the far right wing of the party. I think that's where his problems come from.

We know where McDonnell's problems come from. You know, Mitch Daniels was a successful Republican governor. So, no, I don't think that there's a - I think it's an honor to be able to give the response to the president's State of the Union speech. I think the one thing that is consistent in these speeches is, no matter who the president is, it's difficult to have the stature that the president has when he's giving his speech. Whoever gives that response looks a little bit smaller just because you're up against the president of the United States.

KEILAR: It is -- it is hard to compete on the -- against the bully pulpit.


KEILAR: Stephanie Cutter, S.E. Cupp, thanks to both of you for joining us.

CUPP: Thank you.

CUTTER: Thank you.

KEILAR: We'll be seeing a lot of you on this very busy day.

And we have more State of the Union coverage ahead. But next, just getting 80,000 people into the Super Bowl is a big enough job. Wait until you hear about the security measures that will make it even tougher.