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Discussing the State of the Union

Lisa Picker, 43, is a sixth-grade teacher in Rock Hill. She and her husband have lived with their three children in Webster Grove for three years.
Jim Wildman, NPR News /
Lisa Picker, 43, is a sixth-grade teacher in Rock Hill. She and her husband have lived with their three children in Webster Grove for three years.

Uncertainty about the shaky U.S. economy and the looming war with Iraq makes Bob Will nervous. Will and four of his neighbors in a St. Louis suburb recently joined NPR's Juan Williams to discuss those and other issues President Bush is likely to touch on in tonight's State of the Union address.

"A lot of people are concerned," says Will, a partner at a St. Louis law firm. "They're scared because they don't know what is going to happen... with the war. There are a lot of people who, although they have a job, they've been told for the past year and a half that the economy's going to turn around. Well, it's not happening. Maybe I won't have a job in six months and I think that will cause people to be very nervous, just generally."

Will, Lisa Picker, Barbara Walker, Ken Whitfield and Wyndel Hill live within a handful of blocks of each other in the diverse Rock Hill-Webster Groves suburb of St. Louis. The small group -- gathered around a fire in a neighbor's living room -- is split between Republicans and Democrats, blacks and whites, and middle age and retirement. The conversation began when Williams asked Picker, a sixth-grade teacher, what issue she would stress in the president's speech.

Picker says she's concerned "about the war and the growing sentiment that I see with my friends and family and people all over who are against any kind of war." She wants the government to "listen to our wanting to reach peace in some other way."

Hill, a human resources director, predicted the United States would attack Iraq. "But I don't think it's going to end the conflicts that the U.S. is going to have with citizens of other countries" who want America to mind its own business. Hill says it's hypocritical for the United States to tell other countries what to do when it doesn't treat its own minorities fairly.

"If people in our own country are not afforded the same rights and privileges as every other citizen, until we are able to walk the walk in the way that minorities are treated, where do we get off telling somebody else how to do what they're supposed to do?" Hill says.

Will said he's not opposed to "taking out" Saddam Hussein. "I think that it's part of the war on terrorism."

But Will disagrees with Hill's comparison about the treatment of minorities. "I always get upset when I hear an argument of moral equivalence," Will says. "I don't think it's fair to compare what our country does to its citizens with what a Saddam Hussein or a Kim Jong Il does in North Korea or Iraq. While our system isn't perfect, it's a heck of a lot better than systems in just about every other country..."

Walker, a retired teacher, says her main concern these days is with lawmakers not listening to constituents like her.

"I feel like our congressmen are letting us down," Walker says. "I feel like they're involved in a conflict of power struggles where they're more interested in keeping their power than they are in doing what's best for the country."

There are "playbooks" for the Democrats and Republicans that politicians follow, Walker says, and people who are to the left or right of those playbooks "don't necessarily get heard."

The group is very interested in what Bush will say about boosting the sagging economy. Ken Whitfield, a 70-year-old retiree, said his finances have been hard hit by the stock market downturn.

"My wife and I were in the market and we got out of the market. If we had gotten out in 2000, we would have been $200,000 better off than we were when we got out in 2002. That's significant.

"My broker really tried to talk to me about staying in, but I told him I'm at an age where I'm not trying to gain. I'm just trying to maintain."

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