As President Barack Obama enters his second term, he leads a country that remains deeply divided on issues from fiscal policy to gun control. Despite the divisions, many Americans maintain a sense of hope for themselves, their towns and the country.
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NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is special coverage from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Just over two hours ago, President Barack Obama took the oath of office on the west steps of the Capitol before a throng gathered on the National Mall and millions listening on radio and TV. As he begins his second term in the White House, he leads a nation deeply divided on the size and purpose of government, on gay marriage, on guns.
The start of another Obama presidency means different things to different people, and this celebration of constitutional continuity provides a moment to stop and reflect about life in this nation at this moment. We're going to hear from a number of prominent Americans from different fields today. We also want to hear from you.
In just a few words, send us your snapshot of America at this moment. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. The phone number: 800-989-8255. We begin not with a politician or a pundit but with a poet, Nikky Finney, also a professor of English at the University of Kentucky. She joins us by phone from Lexington today. Good to have you back on the program.
NIKKY FINNEY: Thank you, Neal, good to be here.
CONAN: And as the nation's first African-American president takes the oath of office for the second time today, what do you see as a snapshot of America?
FINNEY: I think a sea change is happening, Neal. I think four years ago, there were Democrats and progressives and black people waiting for more Democrats and progressives and black people to be in the Obama administration. I think Republicans and conservatives and white people were waiting for more progressives and liberals and black people, and guess what? We were all wrong.
What we have discovered, I think, is that we've had to step back and reconfigure our expectation of this young, black, Hawaiian constitutional lawyer, husband, father, son because we all came with expectations of him, you know. And I think the eyes and heart and mind of a very patient, learned, empathetic, judicious president, whom I do not always agree with, whom I fight with liberally from, you know, way back here, but I believe history will show him to be one of the most important two-term presidents we've ever had. I really do.
CONAN: Somebody who in his first inaugural address was addressing the crisis of the moment, an America in economic distress. It hasn't been an easy four years, but we seem to be coming out of it.
FINNEY: We do, and my thing with President Obama and with the electorate and citizenry listening and, you know, watching him is if we would just give him the patience that he's asking for, if we would just lean forward and be active in the ways that he's asking us to, not just, you know, rebuild our garage on a Saturday but go out into the community and rebuild somebody else's garage, I think that really is the sea change that I'm talking about.
I, you know, we - the news has always pointed to the sort of small groups that are, you know, really building up in sort of very provocative ways. But there is something else going on, not just with the people who are running out to buy guns because hopefully the gun laws will change, but there - people are talking to each other in new ways. People are communicating in, you know, by social media and in electronic ways I think more so than we've ever talked to each other as Americans.
And I think it has a lot to do with this president.
CONAN: Yet we also hear about, well, at least two Americas that don't talk to each other.
FINNEY: I think that there are a lot of people who are not talking to each other, but I think we spend a lot of time, in terms of media, in terms of coverage, talking about those groups when there are a lot of other groups who are talking. And I think that's probably our fault for not raising our hands more and saying you know what? This conversation is going on over here, not thinking that it's news, but it is.
And I think that, you know, we have to - those of us on the ground, those of us listening today, those of us answering questions that you're asking and other people are asking, we have to raise our hands and not just leave it up to one or two or five people but really, really get involved in ways that this president has asked us to get involved from day one.
CONAN: And in his speech today, the president specifically said we are not members of party. He appealed to Americans as citizens.
FINNEY: Absolutely, and he's - that's not new, Neal. That has been part of what brought us together I think behind this president four years ago. We've - you know, we listened then. We thought, wow, this is a new thing, no one has ever asked us, at least the people I was talking to, to get involved on this level. And we did. We responded.
That voice of his has not changed. He's still asking us to do it here in his second term, and I think that's very, very important.
CONAN: You teach there in Kentucky. You are from South Carolina; will be returning there this summer to take a position. What is this moment like in the American South? Is it different?
FINNEY: I think that - I think that it is not - you know, we will have - we're still, in Kentucky and in South Carolina pushing back on laws and ideas that don't join hands with the president, and that, you know, makes us work a little harder to bring people together under the one awning. And I think it doesn't change anything. I think that some of the same things that have been happening in the South are going to continue to happen, but I do think people are gathering more and talking more and strategizing more because of their belief in what this president has given us for our future.
You know, it's - there's something, I was thinking about this conversation last night, and I was reading a poem by the great poet Seamus Heaney, and I love this poem so much. I just want to read you just a couple of lines. May I?
CONAN: Go ahead, oh, anytime we have Seamus Heaney on the program, it's always a good thing.
FINNEY: OK, and it's a great poem called "The Cure of Troy," and I think it has everything to do with where we are now in American history. And it's just one stanza from it, but it's the middle stanza, and it says:
(Reading) History says don't hope on this side of the grave, but then once in a lifetime the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme. Oh, that's it.
CONAN: The longed-for tidal wave of justice.
FINNEY: Yes, yes, and that's where I think we are right now; the justice of listening to each other, the justice involved inherently in coming together and deciding very difficult things, the justice of a black man being president, the justice of health care for all.
I mean, right now we're standing in this moment where history and hope really do rhyme, and I just, I thought this was just perfect for what the speech was today, the moment was today for, you know, on the Mall for all Americans, you know, all our red blue, you know, bleeding into one gigantic heart for how the world will be, how America will be going forward. I just could not get away from reading that one, you know, Seamus Heaney stanza today because it's perfect.
CONAN: Nikky Finney, thank you very much for your time today.
FINNEY: You're very welcome.
CONAN: Nikky Finney, a poet, a professor of English at the University of Kentucky, with us on the phone from Lexington. Joining us now by phone is Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, now serving his second term. Governor Patrick is here in Washington for the inaugural festivities. Nice to have you with us, governor, and we're sorry, that's a tough act to follow.
GOVERNOR DEVAL PATRICK: It sure is. Wasn't she beautiful in her description? And I know exactly what she means. I felt it sitting on that platform behind the president.
CONAN: What was it like up there?
PATRICK: First of all, just extraordinary to see an unbroken sea of people all the way back to the Washington Monument. There was a section about a third of the way back from where everyone seemed to have a miniature American flag, and they were all waving it at the same time.
You know, the ceremony, as you know, is such a simple and dignified ritual, and yet so profoundly important. And I think the president made the most of it.
CONAN: And you've had some experience with inaugurations yourself. What did you take away from the speech you heard today?
PATRICK: I thought what we saw is a fresh level of resolve from this president, a call to take on big things and to do them together, to turn to each other rather than on each other. And I think that's what this president has been about consistently and what we have seen it help produce.
The previous guest was talking about health care reform for everybody. That same spirit imbued those results. The president talked about immigration reform and hinted at - or I think gave an indication around his interest in gun safety, obviously continuing to grow the economy because that's central to opportunity. All of these things I think are within our power as a nation when we come together, and I think this president will lead us there.
CONAN: Yet you and many other governors across the country are facing, well, prospects from dire to bleak as you look at your budgets.
PATRICK: Actually, we're doing pretty well. We have consistently invested in education, in innovation and in infrastructure, and as a result we're growing faster than the national growth rate, and our unemployment rate is well below the national average. And I proposed in my State of the State last week to raise additional revenue to accelerate those investments and accelerate that growth, and I think that's exactly the kind of conversation that political leaders should be encouraging people to have. What is it we want government to do and not to do, and what are the sensible ways to pay for that?
CONAN: The president does not enjoy the kind of political party command that you do in Massachusetts.
PATRICK: Well, that's true. We do have a lot of Democrats in our legislature. But I will say that the political dynamic in Massachusetts is not so much Democrat-Republican, it's more insider-outsider. So I certainly have that experience in common with him. And we have Democrats in Massachusetts who'd be Republicans anywhere else. They're about - if you take the number of registered Democrats and registered Republicans, the number of un-enrolled independents is larger than the two combined.
So in that respect I think we're quite like the rest of the country, but we have found a way to come together to confront the big issues facing us and everybody to share in the sacrifice in order to find those solutions.
CONAN: And again, given your experience, a second term - and you know the history of presidents, too - the presidency can sometimes, well, needs to get things done quickly.
PATRICK: That's right, that's right. I mean, we're at home intending to run right through the finish line, as they say, and I think we can expect that from this president, as well.
CONAN: Deval Patrick, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it. Have a safe trip home.
PATRICK: This, Happy Inaugural.
CONAN: Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts took a break from the inaugural activities today to be with us. He was, as you heard him mention, on the inauguration stand earlier today as President Barack Obama took the oath of office. As we continue coverage of today's inaugural events, we're talking about this moment in America. Up next, Ted Koppel and Linda Chavez joins us.
We also want to hear from you. In just a few words, send us your snapshot of America at this moment. The phone number, 800-989-8255 or email us, email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to special coverage, from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is special coverage, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Before leaving the stage at the U.S. Capitol today, President Obama stopped. He turned to look across the crowds on the National Mall. I want to take a look one more time, he said. I'm not going to see this again.
Any number of challenges await the president as he begins his second term, but with the swearing-in and inaugural address behind him, President Obama's immediate attention now shifts to the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. Starting at the U.S. Capitol, he'll wind up in the reviewing stand outside the White House. We'll check in with some of NPR's reporters along the way a bit later.
Right now, our focus on this moment in America. We're talking with a number of prominent Americans from different fields today. We also want to hear from you. In just a few words, send us your snapshot of America at this moment. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. The phone number, 800-989-8255. And joining us now, Greg is on the line from Naples, Florida.
GREG: Hi, good day. I just wanted to comment. I was listening to the previous woman speak about - in glowing terms about how this president's bringing us together, and we're starting a dialogue. I don't agree. I'm here in southwest Florida, and the feeling I'm picking up on is an intrusive, divisive government that's - we've never seen anything where the government has been so punishingly intrusive and threatening with the health care bill becoming - you know, being implemented in the near future and the increasing restrictions on the banks.
Foreclosures are at a record high. The banks aren't even bothering foreclosing on properties anymore down here, they're just keeping them on their books. And they're not lending money so people can get loans to pick up the real estate inventory.
This election was - and the previous one was almost 50-50. They claimed to win by landslides when it was so close and such a - I've never seen anything like this, and I voted for Nixon in '72, so, you know, I was 19 then. I just wanted to offer an opposing opinion because she sounded almost like a - well, not unbiased at all.
CONAN: Speaking from a different place than certainly you are. Just one minor correction, and of course it varies location to location, foreclosures not as bad as they were last year or the year before, but yes, foreclosures still very high.
GREG: They're not bothering to foreclose. They're still leaving it in the previous owners' names because they don't want them on their books. They're sitting vacant for two or three, four years. And the banks are not even bothering to foreclose. That's why they're not at the representative level.
CONAN: All right, thanks very much for the call, Greg, appreciate it.
GREG: I know what I'm talking about. All right.
CONAN: Thank you. Joining us now is Linda Chavez, who served in President Ronald Reagan's White House. These days she's a syndicated columnist, a contributor to FOX News, now with us from her office in Boulder, Colorado. Nice to speak with you again.
LINDA CHAVEZ: Great to be with you, Neal.
CONAN: And as you think about America at this moment, you heard the president's speech earlier today, what impression were you left with?
CHAVEZ: Well, I liked very much the first part of his speech. I had said all along than he could do worse than to dust off a copy of his 2004 speech to the Democratic convention and try to bring us together and remind us that we are one people and one nation, and he certainly did that.
What I was disappointed with actually is very similar to what your caller just mentioned, and that is that we are very divided right now. We may not be quite in the crisis that we were in 2009, but we are facing very challenging times. And unfortunately I didn't hear what I wanted to hear from President Obama today in terms of how he was going to try to bring both sides together at the table and to try to bring us together so that we could get something done.
Instead, I heard him, again, sort of repeating some of the rhetoric of the campaign, essentially saying we don't want to rob today's seniors in order to make investments in tomorrow's future generation. That kind of rhetoric doesn't get us to fixing the problem that we do have a huge budget crisis, and we've got to fix it, and we've got to get both Republicans and Democrats to understand what needs to be done.
CONAN: The best way, of course, to address the economic crisis on every level is growth.
CHAVEZ: Absolutely, and, you know, we have been able to come out of every previous slump in our economy because we've grown our way out of it. We haven't had to make some of the difficult decisions. The Great Depression ended when the war essentially fueled the economy. Ronald Reagan's recession, which was deeper than Barack Obama inherited, came out, I think, because of the policies of President Reagan, but we were able to grow our way out of problems.
And the problem right now is that we're not seeing the kind of dynamic growth. Yes the economy is no longer in recession, and we are growing modestly, but we are spending far more than the growth that we are now experiencing can ever pay for. And that means we're going to have make tough decisions, and rhetoric isn't going to get us there.
CONAN: And did you hear a combative president?
CHAVEZ: I did hear a little bit of a combative president, again, when he started talking about - he did it in his press conference last week when he talked about some Republicans wanting to end Social Security and not being concerned about feeding poor children. That's not the case. There is no one who wants to end Social Security. And all of us - Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, liberals - want to make sure that those who are least fortunate among us are taken care of.
That doesn't mean that we can afford to have a nation in which almost a third of the population is the recipient of some sort of government aid, including middle-class Americans. We do have to look at that. And it's not going to help if the president wants to continue the campaign rather than becoming a statesman. That's what we need right now is a statesman.
I think Barack Obama is capable of being that statesman, but he has to decide that's what he wants to do.
CONAN: Linda Chavez, thank you very much for your time, we appreciate it.
CHAVEZ: Thank you.
CONAN: Linda Chavez, with us on the phone from Boulder, Colorado. She served in President Reagan's White House and now acts as a syndicated columnist and a contributor to FOX News. NPR's Brian Naylor joins us now. He's on the parade route here in Washington, D.C. Brian, where are you exactly?
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Well, Neal, I'm on the back of a flatbed truck out on Constitution Avenue right next to the Capitol Building, and momentarily the parade is going to start, and we're going to motor down Constitution on to Pennsylvania Avenue and then over towards the White House.
CONAN: And this is of course part of the grand ceremony every four years. The president did this in 2009.
NAYLOR: That's right, and every president before him, at least dating back to Thomas Jefferson and Washington, has made this march. Some have actually literally marched, the most recent being President Carter. But in recent history they've all motored and then stepped out and walked outside, and we expect President Obama will do that again, or we're hoping to get a glimpse of him walking along later when we get closer to the White House.
CONAN: And so do we know some of the highlights that we're going to be seeing as this parade meanders its way from Capitol Hill to the White House?
NAYLOR: Well, there are a lot of bands, if you're a fan of marching bands. There will be bands from pretty much every state. There will be a couple of floats. There are of course a lot of military bands. And there's a lot of ethnic diversity kind of representing the diversity of the nation. There are folkloric dancing troupes. There are the first - one of the oldest African-American Boy Scout troops will be here. There's a Chinese-American folkdance troupes, Native American women warriors. So there'll be a lot of different - a lot of diversity and a few floats, probably, not quite like what you'd expect to see at the Thanksgiving Day Parade or the Rose Bowl Parade, but there will be a few.
CONAN: And you've done this before, too.
NAYLOR: I've actually not marched. I've watched the parade a couple of times. And it's fun. I mean, it's a great day for a parade. The sun has come out. There's a bit of a breeze, not too chilly. And there are folks lining the route. We're on - as I say we're on the Capitol Hill, and there's some folks lining the way. And of course there are military representatives from all of the armed forces that are standing along the parade route. And so everybody's kind of ready for this to get going.
CONAN: All right, we'll be checking back in with you and hope to catch up with you when the president - well, I guess the big drama is will he or won't he get out and walk. We expect he probably will. Brian Naylor, thanks very much.
NAYLOR: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: NPR's Brian Naylor on a flatbed truck at the head of the inaugural parade. With us here in Studio 3A is NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner. Julie, nice to have you with us as always.
JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Nice to be here.
CONAN: And it's interesting, the president made no direct reference today to his singular accomplishment, legislative accomplishment of the first term, and that of course was the Affordable Care Act.
ROVNER: That's right, although he did mention Medicare and Medicaid in passing, which are something that's certainly going to be on the agenda in the next several fights that are going to go on on Capitol Hill. I think he tried to use the words - he didn't really use the word bipartisan but tried to talk about working together, but certainly, these are going to come up. The other big thing that's going to up is this is the big year for implementation of the Affordable Care Act, his signature achievement from the first term and this - several questions have been asked about, you know, could this be put off?
It's been difficult to get it going with all the attempts to repeal it, and obviously, the Supreme Court lawsuit and all of his senior advisers have been saying whenever asked that question, absolutely not that this is going forward. It does say it is scheduled - the big part that's scheduled to take effect January 1st of 2014. So even though he didn't mention it, this is going to be a large issue going into - this - the rest of this year.
CONAN: And we were just talking to Brian Naylor at the head of the parade route. Among the groups in the parade, one of them is getting a lot of attention, a group called AT EASE, an equine therapy program from Wisconsin. What do you know about it?
ROVNER: Well, actually, you know, I think some people have been kind of making fun of it, but at the beginning of the parade are several groups that are affiliated with military and particularly with wounded members of the military. And this is a group that helps disabled veterans, and there's - I actually did a story as a health reporter last year about therapy using animals, and therapy using horses is a particularly not that new but certainly a growing aspect where horses are used both for emotional bonding and for physical healing.
It's been done mostly with children, but there are more and more programs using it for disabled veterans, for veterans with injures, with PTSD, with all kinds of things. So this is one of those programs, and they are going to appear towards the beginning of the parade.
CONAN: I have to say my daughter worked with one of those groups many years ago and with children, and the effect on those kids is astonishing.
ROVNER: Yeah. Horses have a very sort of unique bond with humans, and they've been found to be very successful working both with children and with adults with disabilities and now with veterans who have come back with various problems.
CONAN: Julie Rovner, NPR's health policy correspondent and as regular listeners will know an equine specialist herself, thank you very much.
ROVNER: Thank you.
CONAN: Julie Rovner joining us here in Studio 3A. We turn now to NPR commentator Ted Koppel, as we do from time to time. Ted's at home in Maryland today, away from all of the nonsense around the Mall. Always good to have you with us, Ted.
TED KOPPEL, BYLINE: Thank you, Neal. Always good to be with you.
CONAN: And I wanted to ask you about a passage in the president's remarks where he said we the people still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war. He spoke of ending the decade of war that we've seen these past 10 years. Yet, as we also see in events in Mali and in Algeria and in Syria, our enemies in al-Qaida are still active.
KOPPEL: I think the president was grammatically correct, and you quote him accurately when he talked about ending the decade of war. We have indeed ended the decade of war, but we haven't ended the war. And even to the degree that U.S. forces pull out of Afghanistan - and I still don't believe that they're all going to be pulling out - it's a question of whether the Pentagon will leave three or six or 10,000 troops behind. But I think we're going to have American troops in Afghanistan for some years to come.
The fact of the matter is, as you correctly point out, Neal, that the franchise al-Qaida, that franchise has grown and spread, is still active in neighboring Pakistan, indeed is still active in Afghanistan itself, and franchise branches are now springing up all over the world.
CONAN: On this Inauguration Day, on this Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, we're taking a look at America, snapshots of our country. You're listening to special coverage from NPR News. And, Ted Koppel, you also work for the NBC program "30 Rock." I understand in connection with that, you've been speaking with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dempsey.
KOPPEL: I have and asked him what it is that sort of keeps him awake. And indeed, near term, what was he talking about was what you and I have just been talking about, and that is the continuing threat of terrorism to the United States. But one of the issues that I don't think came up at all during the campaign, didn't come up in the president's speech today but the fact of the matter is, is the object of enormous concern within the administration is the danger of cyber war.
As you know, the assumption is that we and the Israelis, certainly the Israelis but I think the United States was actively involved also in effect launched a cyber war attack against Iran's nuclear program, its military nuclear program with some considerable success. And as General Dempsey pointed out to me, we simply cannot afford to assume that we're the only people in the world smart enough to do that. And what he told me is that the Iranians have already launched a number of disruptive attacks, not destructive but attacks against American infrastructure, against the American banking system with some considerable success.
And if you look at what the storm that - terrible Storm Sandy, the damage that it reeked upon Lower Manhattan where it knocked out the electricity and then you think about what a cyber attack on Manhattan or any other major city in the United States could do, you have some sense of what it is that's keeping his people awake at night.
CONAN: And Ted was kind enough not to correct me of course. You can see that interview with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on "Rock Center"...
CONAN: ...this week on NBC and...
KOPPEL: They can try watching the other program too, but I don't think...
CONAN: I was going to say yours is not intentionally a comedy.
KOPPEL: No. That's true.
CONAN: And we just have about a minute left, Ted. General Dempsey, I'm sure, had other issues, but this resurgence of al-Qaida in North Africa, this has got to be a worry.
KOPPEL: I don't think it's really perceived as resurgence of, you know, when you talk about the - I hope McDonald's will forgive me for this - but the - this notion of having franchises all over the world, they've been there for quite some time. They don't operate necessarily with the name of al-Qaida. Some of them simply adopt it. The one we've just seen so active is al-Qaida in the Maghreb. That is in North Africa. But they're all over the place. They're in the Philippines. They're in Indonesia. They're in Yemen. And indeed, they are in Syria. And one of the great nightmares is if, in fact, the current government of Syria is overthrown, what do we know about the people who are going to overthrow them, many of them are al-Qaida?
CONAN: Ted Koppel, as always, thanks very much.
KOPPEL: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And we'll look forward to that interview with General Dempsey on "Rock Center" later this week. We're taking snapshots of America on this Inauguration Day. 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. Stay with us. You're listening to a special coverage from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is a special coverage of President Obama's inaugural festivities from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
In his speech earlier today, President Obama said this generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience. He added: We are made for this moment and we will seize it so long as we seize it together.
We're taking a moment today to stop and reflect about life in this nation at this moment. We're going to hear from a number of prominent Americans in different fields today. We also want to hear from you. In just a few words, send us your snapshot of America at this moment. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. The phone number is 800-989-8255.
And here are some emails. This is from Amanda(ph) in Greenville, Ohio. This is a photo of my partner, Sarah(ph), and me, traveling from West Virginia to Ohio with our two sons asleep in the back seats. We look forward to a future in which we are able to legally marry in any state and our children don't feel judged for having two moms.
This is from Iran White(ph) in Hollister, California. The snapshot of America to my eyes, a nation so fearful and eager to not have care that we continually give up our rights and put up with a Congress that gets nothing done that is truly good for common man.
This is from - hard to see: Celebrating our president's inaugural Minnesota style, jumping in the lake at 17 below zero, a fresh start, good luck, Mr. President.
And this is from Fernando(ph). Though I think that Obama is a pragmatic president, my snapshot of America is pretty grim. It's not about race anymore, at least not like before, but about classes that continue to be more and more divided into the rich and poor toward the elimination of the middle class. There's a fundamental flaw in the mindset on the Hill that this president will be required to change.
Now to San Francisco, where we've reached actress and author, Anna Deavere Smith who, just last week, was awarded the Lillian Gish Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in the arts. Anna Deavere Smith, congratulations. Nice of you to be with us today.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.
CONAN: Now, you've long used the stage to bring attention to important social issues. As you think about this moment and the next four years, what's your snapshot of America?
SMITH: Well, I do think that one of the major challenges and opportunities that we have ahead of us is education. I don't need to tell you or your listeners that right now higher education costs too much for everybody who's in that and getting a good education costs individuals too much money. At the same time, it's costing society too much money to have so many people in the grips of a bad education. So that's one of the things I think that we have ahead of us that's looking for innovation and looking for compassion and looking for new ways of thinking.
CONAN: And as you try to think about those new ways, you're in a state that's been forced to raise its tuition rates over the objections of many because of the budget crisis there. Do you see things changing?
SMITH: No. I think things will probably get worse before they get better. I'm actually in New York. I live in New York. I just happen to be out here in California right now. And - but, you know, this is also a state that I'm told has more prisons than schools and is building prisons and closing down schools. So it's certainly a very interesting place to be right now as I talk to you about education as the challenge and the opportunity that I see ahead of us.
CONAN: The president, during his address today said, for we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. He went on to say, we are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else.
It's interesting. Do you think that was true? Interesting to see Justice Sotomayor on the...
SMITH: On the stage, yeah. Well, I mean, I think that I certainly came out of the time. Thank goodness for the war on poverty. I didn't grow up in a poor household, but the - but there were many, many things that happened because of the war on poverty that made me to have - enabled me to have access to an education that I probably would not have had. And I saw a whole generation of friends, you know, really changed their lives and the lives of people around them.
I thought that today's inauguration was really good news because - that this whole notion of we, of all of us, even our inaugural poet, Blanco, gave his poem, having that rhetorical device of one son, one moon, one sky - that we are all here together.
And education is certainly one of those challenges that will not be met without people understanding that it's not just the need to take care of who's under your roof, but to think about a larger society. And that's going to take, you know, hearts and minds, and that's where I think that artists, all kinds of artists, you know, the kind that end up in museums, but also the kind who end up writing comedies on TV.
Part of what accompanied that war on poverty that I talk about was an extraordinary amount of culture at every level, whether it was songs, whether it was, you know, The Beatles or whether it was Sly and the Family Stone or whether it was "I Spy." All of these things were convincing us that we needed to come out of some of the shut doors that we had then.
You know, at the Democratic Convention, I was so happy to hear the first lady remind us that although our president is somebody who had some doors opened for him, he also knows that, you know, he's not somebody who's going shut the door once he gets inside. And I heard that all throughout the Inauguration this morning, people reaching out, Lamar Alexander, you know, giving a huzzah to Alex Haley. So I was very happy about the spirit of this morning and hope that it's going to lead us to, really, a time - as your colleagues have said - that's less about me, more about us.
CONAN: One more question, and we'll let you get back to work, and that is, a professional, this is a performance. How'd he do?
SMITH: What did you say?
CONAN: You're a professional. As a professional, how did the president do in his performance?
SMITH: Oh, I thought the president did very well up there with...
SMITH: ...you know, he had - he was with a band of artists, wasn't he? The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, all the - you know, Beyonce. You know, I think the president did very well. I think, you know, again, your colleagues and commentators noted how much more relaxed he seemed today this time than the last time. And I thought the speech was just terrific.
CONAN: Anna Deavere Smith, thank you very much for your time.
SMITH: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: Anna Deavere Smith, the actress, author and professor in performance studies at NYU, with us by phone today from San Francisco, where she happened to be. 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. Send us your snapshot of America. Let's go to Lansing, in Michigan. Joe's on the line.
JOE: Yeah. Hi, Neal. I feel like we're basically, well, at this point, a nation divided by two sets of facts. I'm hopeful that we don't remain that way, but that's how I see things now.
CONAN: So divided, that we can't even agree on what the facts are.
JOE: That's the biggest problem. You know, Ted Koppel was a great guy. He lives by truth religiously. We need so much more of that, and people calling other people to the carpet and saying, no, I'm sorry. That's just wrong. That's wrong, and actually having the actual facts out there. The truth matters, and we just don't see enough, both in the media and in politics where people say, no, I'm sorry. You are wrong. Your earlier speaker saying that Ronald Reagan's recession was the same as this previous recession - nonsense, utter nonsense. And I just wish in a kind, considerate way, we would find a way to say there's one set of facts. There is the truth, and I just don't see that at this juncture.
CONAN: Joe, thanks very much.
JOE: Thank you.
CONAN: Here's an email from Susan. She sends us one word: nervous. This from Marcy in San Francisco: The spirit of adventure, self-reliance and risk that has made this nation great is still lurking in the shadows while a growing, intrusive government continues to snap at that spirit's heels.
And this is from Cindy in Cincinnati: The snapshot I see of America comes from Walnut Hills, a public school consistently rated among the top 100 in the nation. Every day, students in grade seven through 12 help each other, listen to each other, tease each other. Some are from privileged families, and they'll go to the Ivy Leagues. Some come from profound poverty. They represent an array of religious and ethnic backgrounds. Most are straight. Some are gay. These students know and enjoy each other's differences, and they aren't colorblind. They are color appreciative.
Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. And let's go to - this is Brandon, Brandon with us from San Francisco.
BRANDON: Hey, Neal. Love the show.
CONAN: Thank you.
BRANDON: Just a quick background: My name is Brandon. I am originally from Arkansas, growing up in the '90s. I'm an openly gay man now. I met my legally married husband in New York, my husband Alex, and we now live in The Castro in San Francisco. And from my perspective as an openly gay man, to have the president mention Stonewall, to give us the honor of being in the same line with Selma, Alabama and Seneca Falls is a huge honor. It gives me a sense of legitimacy and that I have a seat at the table. And the fact that he's using that magic moment where the world is watching him, I felt like I have a seat at the table. And for me, here - especially in The Castro, which is a huge LGBT neighborhood, terribly honored and terribly proud. So that's my takeaway from today.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. We've spoken earlier this hour with poets and pundits and politicians. Now we turn to business. Ben Blumenfeld, also in San Francisco, he's the former design lead at Facebook, currently co-director of the Designer Fund, an angel fund of designers that invest in design entrepreneurs. And it's good of you to be with us today.
BEN BLUMENFELD: Oh, thanks for having me.
CONAN: And I know you're deeply involved with design and technology community there in Silicon Valley. Well, we keep hearing of a sluggish economic recovery. Is that what's happening in Silicon Valley?
BLUMENFELD: No. I would say, you know, we're kind of in this optimistic bubble, if you will. Oh, I don't know. I hope it's not a bubble, but there's definitely a sense of optimism out here. In terms of design, for example, I think you see society really starting to understand the value of design. So it feels like a huge opportunity for designers to get funding and connect with great tech and businesspeople to start world-changing companies. I mean, if you look at companies like Pinterest, Airbnb, Kickstarter, great examples of that.
CONAN: And design, what is it about their design that makes them so appealing, do you think?
BLUMENFELD: What is it about design that makes them so appealing?
BLUMENFELD: I think, you know, people have a higher standard for the experiences that they want now. And with Apple having created so many intellectual experiences that have become ubiquitous, people demand and want that everywhere else in their lives. So, you know, whether that be when they walk into a hospital, or whether that be when they go into a restaurant and order food, I think people want to have these experiences at a higher level all throughout their lives.
CONAN: And as you look at this - well, you seemed to be describing an atmosphere of expectation, that things are not merely recovering, but taking off.
BLUMENFELD: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. One other theme I was thinking about, you know, along this line is the idea of access and openness, you know, that the people that are really feel like they have more access to opportunities than ever. And so there's just such a great dialogue happening between designers and technology and people like, you know, civic leaders, for example. A great example: Cory Booker. You can just tweet at him now. I mean, it's a mayor that is so accessible, that you can just talk directly to him as an individual. And we're starting to see that, you know, in health care and other facets of life. And I think that creates an area of even more optimism for designers looking to tackle these problems.
CONAN: Yet a lot of us look at the situation and see politics that, if not paralyzed, are at least pinched.
BLUMENFELD: I'm sorry. Say again?
CONAN: A lot of us look at politics and see a paralysis, or at least a pinch.
BLUMENFELD: Oh, interesting. Yeah, so I think that - you know, you've - I think that's when you see politicians dealing with politicians, I agree with that. But then you see - I'll give you a great example, is recently, we did a health design challenge. And this was in collaboration with a young guy, young entrepreneur who became a Presidential Innovation Fellow recently. We knew him, because we wanted to invest in this company. But he came up with this idea of: What if designers took on redesigning the electronic medical record? And so instead of looking to government to try to take that on, he said: Let's have a huge design community take that on.
So we created the challenge on Challenge.gov, which is platform that (unintelligible). We pointed hundreds of designers to the challenge. And not only do they come up with amazing solutions, but we can actually take those solutions and implement them for VA patients and open source them for any health care company to use. Any - you know, all these concepts and ideas are relatively new, and all these mechanisms are relatively new. And it didn't take, you know, a lot of people in government to make that happen. And it only took people, and you get this great impact on health care.
CONAN: Well, Stan(ph) Blumenfeld, it's great to hear optimism from Silicon Valley. Thank you very much for your time today.
BLUMENFELD: Absolutely. Thank you.
CONAN: Ben Blumenfeld, formerly a design lead at Facebook, co-director of the Designer Fund, with us today from San Francisco. You're listening to special coverage, from NPR News.
And let's get Jeff on the line, Jeff with us from Baltimore.
JEFF: Hi. My take on it is kind of like Thanksgiving dinner. Everybody's kind of agreed to be together, but nobody can agree on anything else.
CONAN: Except maybe to pass the gravy.
JEFF: Oh, yeah. But which direction do you go, clockwise or counterclockwise? You know, I mean, it's just everybody is - they think their opinion is kind of the way that you need to go. And if you don't (technical difficulties) with that, then there's no - almost no point talking to you.
CONAN: And do you see common ground?
JEFF: You know, it's there. But everybody has got to agree that - either that (technical difficulties) that maybe I'm not as right as I think I am.
CONAN: All right. Jeff, thanks very much. We appreciate it.
JEFF: All right. Thank you.
CONAN: Let's see if - this is an email from Norman in Pittsburg: Unfortunately, Barack Obama continues to preach to the choir. If he truly wishes to bridge the gap to the Republican Party, he must make a bigger effort to step outside his inner circle to wine and dine his colleagues, perhaps, even play golf with a larger number of them.
Let's see if we can go to Douglas, and Douglas on the line with us from Orlando.
DOUGLAS: Hello. Yes. My comment - my thought would be we are currently economically unsustainable. One of the things that nobody ever seems to talk about, the writing the wall, is that you just can't continue to have constant growth on a finite planet, my analogy being an aerospace systems engineer with a technical background, is like bacteria in a petri dish. They're going to grow and grow and grow, and then eventually, what happens to the bacteria when they run out of room in the petri dish? They die. And that's where we are right now. You cannot continue to have this economic theory based on 100-plus-year-old thinking that's going to allow this country, this world, to continue to prosper. A serious change needs to occur in the mindset of how will we do things, the global operating system.
CONAN: And do you hear anybody in public life today articulating that need?
DOUGLAS: Absolutely not. It's the defending of the establishment. Do what's always been done. And I find that ironic, because this whole country was founded by people who challenged the establishment. They went up against a monarchy that was how strong, and they said nope. We're not going to do it your way anymore. Yet now we have become the monarchy. We are now defending the establishment as it is. We've become what we fought against 200-plus years ago.
CONAN: Douglas, thanks very much for your time.
DOUGLAS: Thank you.
CONAN: And here's an email from Mark in Sacramento: You made a call out to the nation asking for a snapshot, and I've listened for the last half hour to callers and pundits. We seem to observe a Rorschach block - blot every four years corresponding with a November election, the holiday season and an Inauguration. When you ask us to report what we see, you basically get the respondent's kaleidoscope, refractions of their own hopes, fears, aspirations and ideology. I guess it's worth appreciating the diversity.
Thanks to everybody who called and wrote. More special coverage coming up on NPR throughout the day, and more on the president's speech, as well. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. This is special coverage, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.