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Obama, Congress Play Grownup for One Night: Margaret Carlson

The U.S. Congress is not yet the Walton family, but at least if someone had yelled out “You lie!” during the president’s State of the Union last night, it would have shocked the body politic.

While it might not last and it may not help Barack Obama in the end, the ethic on Capitol Hill was restrained and respectful.

Enough members crossed the aisle to sit with their political opposites that it created a visual utterly unlike prior State of the Union gatherings, at which the parties usually divide like the Red Sea.

Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, the Republican doctor who loathes health-care reform, sat with one of its champions: New York Democrat Chuck Schumer. The very attractive senators Kirsten Gillibrand (Democrat) and John Thune (Republican) might have been king and queen of the prom. Two screaming enemies from New York’s House delegation, Republican Peter King and Democrat Anthony Weiner, sat together.

Even Republican Representative Joe Wilson, the shouter of “You lie!” during Obama’s health-care address to Congress in 2009, sat with two Democrats.

Obama wasted no time acknowledging the awful event that inspired the show of bipartisanship, opening his speech by pointing out the empty seat that should have been filled by Representative Gabrielle Giffords, the target of the Jan. 8 shooting rampage in Tucson, Arizona, that killed six and wounded 13.

No Laundry

It was an elevated speech, closer to his memorial address in Tucson, a tone-setter rather than a Clintonesque laundry list of tiny programs.

He noted our perilous economic situation, with the stock market and corporate profits roaring back, but not the jobs. Robots are doing what those with a high-school education once did. We’re not going back to the days of Ozzie and Harriet, with jobs-for-life at the factory or at a downtown business. Get used to it.

State of the Union speeches aren’t meant to be downers, though. Amid the manure there’s a pony; in the threat from China, there’s Obama’s “Sputnik moment.” New spending -- sorry, I mean “investments,” of course -- will help us find the next Internet, beat China, out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world and rebuild our crumbling infrastructure.

Obama will fund biomedical research, information technology, renewable energy -- and oh yes, freeze domestic spending. Did I mention the State of the Union is not for sweating the details?

Free Ideas

At least he offered some ideas that don’t cost money: reorganize government, kill bad regulations, simplify the tax code, celebrate the science geek as much as the football star, and turn off the TV. (Wait -- not right now, I’m speaking on just about every channel.)

You might think peace was at hand from Obama’s description of wars in Iraq (coming to an end), Afghanistan (troops begin heading home in July), Pakistan (we’ll defeat al-Qaeda). We all stand with the newly free people of South Sudan and Tunisia.

The president offered a few glimmers of humor. He heard a rumor about some in Congress not liking his health-care plan. Investing in high-speed rail could mean avoiding airport pat-downs. And a good example of government waste is overlapping oversight of salmon based on whether they’re in salt or fresh water: “I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.”

He got tough only twice, demanding no more government subsidies for oil companies and no further extension of the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans that he, himself, agreed to continue for two years in a deal last month with congressional Republicans.

Counting Ovations

The State of the Union is a call to action, and a show. We wait to see who will be in the first lady’s viewing box (the hero of Tucson, Daniel Hernandez); who will get a tip of the hat (John Boehner, for sweeping up his father’s bar); how many ovations the president gets (not nearly as many as when the parties sit separately); and who will give the response (Representative Paul Ryan, budget guru).

Ryan escaped the jinx that frequently befalls the rising stars who’ve given the rebuttal. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal infamously appeared before a curving staircase reminiscent of Tara while coming across less as Clark Gable than as the wide-eyed, corn-fed Kenneth the Page from “30 Rock.”

Doing himself no harm, Ryan stuck with generalities rather than bring up his vaunted fiscal roadmap, which would end Social Security and Medicare as we know it.

Second Response

The Tea Party decided to supplement Ryan’s official Republican response with an unofficial one of its own, and Representative Michele Bachmann didn’t escape that Jindal curse.

Rather than look into the camera, she seemed to gaze into the middle distance while regurgitating the debunked claim that 16,500 Internal Revenue Service agents will be policing Obamacare. Like that other Tea Partier, Christine O’Donnell, she may have to make an ad explaining herself. I’d suggest, “I’m not a dolt.”

Too bad Antonin Scalia wasn’t among the U.S. Supreme Court justices who attended Obama’s speech. He’s called the annual event an “indignity” and a “juvenile spectacle.”

Actually, the spectacle last night was decidedly grownup, a gathering of serious people listening, if only for an hour, to one man’s proposed solutions. It took an empty seat to make Democrats and Republicans rise to the occasion.

(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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