The SOTU Show: Obama, Congress and Guest Stars

Perhaps the most notable thing about the States of the Union address by President Barack Obama Jan. 28—and the GOP rebuttals and replies, for that matter—was how little it had to do with the state of the Union.

All day, and a few days leading up to the speech, pundits on all sides of the issues and pollsters, especially, as well as all the media, print, television, blogosphere and the like who read polls like high priests used to read the entrails of chickens in olden days were talking about how dispirited the American people seemed to be.

In various polls, we, the people, appeared to have lost hope not only over the five years of Obama but perhaps over the entire 21st Century thus far Like Jimmy Carter back in the late 1970s, brooding over high inflation and high unemployment and spiraling gas prices and the Iran hostage crisis, we appear to have discovered a national malaise within ourselves.

People—on various ideological sides and with various ways of spreading blame—had lost hope about a better future, about the economy turning around, we were worried about upward mobility, stagnant salaries, America’s ability to control events or solve problems, the great wealth and class divide. Back then, Carter blamed the people. Now, the people appeared to be blaming the president but also Congress and essentially anyone associated with the federal government.

They have their reasons—ideological combat on a grand scale, deadlock, the government shut down, Obamacare and its splendidly catastrophic roll-out, which has righted itself to some extent and remains the law of the land. The people appear to have lost faith in the president’s leadership skills and in Congress’s ability to work and play well with others.

Obama’s speech, while more or less well received, did not address any of those issues or the polls. He did not mention the government shutdown, he did not complain overly about every Republican opposition to his proposals, including raising the minimum wage. Rather, he talked about working with congressional leaders where it was possible, and if not, using not only the bully pulpit, but also an executive, go-alone action. To which more than one Republican replied that the United States did not have a king.

The president who had talked about hope so often over the course of two victorious elections, chose not to go there too often in his State of the Union address, which may actually be a reflection of the times, if not a referencing. He promised action, of one sort or another, on bridging the huge gap between rich and poor, and the self-evident shrinking, if not disappearing middle class.

Obama said many things worth noting or long overdue to be talked about. He brought up the startling notion in a country that has been at war ever since 9/11: “We must move off a permanent war footing.” He warned GOP leaders that if they sought new sanctions against Iran, he would veto any such moves. “Give diplomacy a chance,” he said.

There was some gauntlet throwing, but no major policy shifts, either. He stoutly defended Obamacare strongly, without referencing its rollout or making any further apologies for it, even though GOP leaders have vowed to fight it still. This is an election year, after all, and a critical one where the GOP is still trying to find its soul, engage women and Hispanics and save the middle class.

In a way, the State of the Union has become a television show. It has its main star, its minor stars, its guest stars—Willie Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” was there, perhaps taking the first step toward the State of the Union becoming, as one journalist said, something like the White House Correspondents’ Association annual dinner.

It has its rituals—the rolling walk to the podium by the president, the handshaking, the asides to friends and foes, who claps loudest or not at all. It becomes something like the Oscars and the Grammys in awards season. It must be sheer torture for House Speaker John Boehner—he is on camera just about 90 percent of the time, sitting alongside Vice President Joe Biden, who flashed his manic grin every now and then, jumped out of his chair, leaving Boehner sitting a few times. Boehner fiddled with his jacket buttons, try to look composed and ended up looking sternly umcomfortable. If Boehner failed to clap the gathered GOP stalwarts didn’t either, especially when the president said, “The debate is settled, climate change is a fact.” The Dems cheered; the GOP frowned.

At least no one shouted out, “Liar!” In fact, Obama in a fit of optimism American style reminded folks that this was a country where the son of a barkeep could rise to be Speaker of the House. Lots of applause for that. After a few seconds, Boehner gave a one-thumb up. Whereupon the president gave it to himself, being the son of a single mother risen to the presidency. Periodically you could see the stern face of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, perhaps thinking if it were possible for him to talk for hours about Dr. Seuss.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers from Washington State gave the official Republican rebuttal speech. It was a speech so sunny that there was not one word or idea in it with which anyone could argue with. In both the president’s speech and in Rodgers’s rebuttal, you would never guess that there had ever been a government shutdown, and a state of gridlock so severe that very little progress had been made on any issue. Rather, Rodgers said the divide was a divide of opportunity and that it could be closed as soon as everyone was given the opportunity to learn to climb the ladder of opportunity, apparently a feat that hitherto had only been accomplished by opportunists.

In the end, we were all swept away in the presence of of Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg, whose severe wounds suffered in 2009 were still evident. He received the longest and loudest applause of the evening. Courage, a quality often lacking in politics and when witnessed in the flesh, often moves politicians and the rest of us to tears.


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