By the time President Barack Obama delivered the State of the Union, much of the drama had been leeched away. As with the Super Bowl, the pre-game run-up dwarfs the event itself.
The press tells the president what he “has to do” in what’s always the “speech of his life.” The anchors, Diane, Katie, and Brian, went for lunch and doled out morsels from their doggie bag the rest of the afternoon.
Other authorized tidbits were dished to favored scribes. Unauthorized ones were dished to lesser journalists by lesser aides wanting to feel in the middle of things. A diligent reporter could practically have written the 71-minute speech by the time Speaker Nancy Pelosi had her moment of high honor and distinct privilege.
The remaining drama is all in the demeanor of the president and that of his audience. Obama was cool without being cold, with touches of acute frustration that stopped short of sounding malaise alarms. He shed his usual oratorical cadence to be chatty and informal. There were moments of ironic detachment when he acknowledged that the right side of the aisle -- which actually was to his left -- just wasn’t buying a thing he said, even when he was spooning ice cream.
As for the chamber, Republicans won the award for most sullen party in a closer contest than you might have expected. The only consistent thought rippling across the room was, “How does this cut for my re-election?” After three kicks in the shins in elections during the past three months, Democrats are more uneasy than Republicans about the midterms.
Eye on Independents
Obama was careful not to speak down to Republicans, mindful to speak up to independents, who thought he’d have this partisanship thing worked out by now. And he was conscious of not letting himself or his party off the hook.
He noted that he’d had political setbacks, “and some of them were deserved.” He admonished congressional Democrats that they enjoy the largest majority in decades. “People expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills.”
Although his spine was stiff and his brain fully engaged, Obama clung throughout to his big-hearted delusion that we can all get along. For most of the evening, Republicans did what they could, at least in mime, to prove him wrong.
Unlike last time, Republicans realized they were sitting in the U.S. Capitol, not in the boisterous bleachers at a ballgame. The independents they’ve been attracting in recent elections don’t like rowdiness. There were no homemade signs, no boos, no obvious napping.
The closest thing to a “You lie” moment came from strange quarters. The quiet and decorous Justice Samuel Alito shook his head in disbelief, mouthing the words “not true,” when the president dressed down the Supreme Court for overturning a century of law to allow unlimited amounts of money from corporations to flow into our politics.
While acting more mature, Republicans showed no shift from being the Party of No, even when Obama reeled off programs they like -- new nuclear power plants, offshore oil drilling, tax credits, an emphasis on jobs over health-care reform, and a spending freeze.
When Obama said the freeze wouldn’t go into effect until next year, Republicans rustled in their seats, particularly the perpetually orange-tanned House minority leader, John Boehner, whose body language said, That’s just what we expect from you undisciplined Democrats.
Noticing, Obama ad-libbed, “That’s how budgeting works.”
Not even his list of tax cuts moved the GOP. Obama’s audience was as tough as the one Jay Leno will face when he replaces the deposed Conan O’Brien. “I thought I’d get some applause on that one” he lamented.
Sound of Silence
The Republicans’ reticence bordered on perilous when, by their silence, they appeared not to agree with Obama’s bare-knuckled statement that “we all hated the bank bailout.”
It was a good half hour before he brought up health care, pledging to see it through but without offering a road map to a conclusion. It was enough to hearten wavering Democrats. Yesterday Pelosi said she had the votes in the House to pass the Senate bill, if there were promises in blood that the bad parts would be fixed.
The speech reminded us of the earnest, problem-solving technocrat Obama is. It was easy to forget him while the uninspiring Senator Max Baucus seemed to be running the country as Obama’s designated health czar.
Inadvertently perhaps, Republicans reminded us why Obama, with majorities in both houses, can’t get anything done. Watching them sitting stone-faced in their seats, like the board of a country club sizing up an aspiring member, it all became perfectly clear.
(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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