"Upbeat." That's the adjective being used as much as any other to describe the tone of Tuesday's State of the Union address . Members from both parties could be forgiven for hearing it a bit differently.
The speech may well be remembered longest for its genuinely stirring finale, when President Barack Obama merged the story of a 10-times-deployed and gravely wounded Afghanistan war veteran, who was sitting in the balcony, with the country’s difficult path toward a more perfect union. "Like the America he serves, Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit," Obama declared to a sustained and teary-eyed standing ovation.
But in the preceding 63 minutes, the president mixed it up plenty with the audience in the House chamber. And he made clearer than ever that he views the Capitol as a readily avoidable impediment — generating headlines about Obama pursuing a “year of action” mainly on his own authority. He also took a handful of swipes at Congress, and they were arguably aimed at least as often at the institution’s bipartisan shortcomings as at his Republican tormentors.
The japes were somewhat subtle, by the standards of today’s political discourse. And they are being overlooked, probably for a couple of reasons that have to do with the ritualized ways of the modern State of the Union:
The lawmakers themselves have become almost excessively adept at cooking up their partisan talking points hours beforehand, and repeating them verbatim with minimal regard to what they actually hear . So not all that many of them picked up on his poking one-liners — all of which were at the relative low end of the dismissive-disdainful-disparaging spectrum.
At the same time, the White House has become just as savvy at the game of advance spin. Officials say they’re doing a favor to the mainstream media elite by describing the speech’s tone and substance in advance, because otherwise the press will have almost no time to form an independent assessment between when the teleprompter goes off and when their deadlines arrive. So it’s not surprising the coverage bought in to the message that unnameable senior administration officials dished out on background Tuesday afternoon: Obama is not out to pick a fight with Congress; he remains eager to work with them but wasn’t willing to wait any longer for signs of collaboration.
On Wednesday, when he followed the presidential tradition of road-testing lines from the speech, Obama avoided looking down on the Hill — even reminding his audience at a Costco in suburban Maryland that “ultimately Congress does have to do its part” if the minimum wage is to be raised nationwide .
At a U.S. Steel plant near Pittsburgh, he offered details about another piece of his agenda for helping the personal finances of low-wage workers, which he is doing without Congress: have the Treasury create a new after-tax, federally guaranteed savings program for people whose employers don’t offer retirement plans — that's as many as half the nation’s workers.
Something similar is available to federal employees, which is what created the opening for Obama’s most gratuitous un-grace note on Tuesday night. Knowing that perceptions about special privileges, heightened by the Hill’s tortuous efforts to be minimally effected by Obamacare, are contributing the record-low approval numbers for everyone in Congress, the president could not resist saying that his "myRA" plan would help regular people "save at work just like everyone in this chamber can."
Two other call downs could fairly apply to Democrats as much as Republicans. When Obama admonished that "this Congress needs to restore the unemployment insurance you just let expire for 1.6 million people," he was surely aware that leaders of his party did no more than leaders on the other side to preserve benefits for the longtime jobless when it was legislatively possible: as a rider to the year-ending bipartisan budget deal.
And when he promised personal efforts to boost pre-kindergarten enrollment "as Congress decides what it’s going to do," Obama knew full well that figuring out how to pay for his universal pre-K aspiration was part of the much larger budget talks all sides have tacitly abandoned for the rest of his presidency.
To be sure, Obama aimed a couple of zingers exclusively at congressional Republicans. His line, "When our differences shut down government or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States, then we are not doing right by the American people,” was one more belated spanking of the GOP for its politically misguided tactics of last fall.
"Let's not have another 40-something votes to repeal a law that's already helping millions of Americans," because "the first 40 were plenty," was a chuckle-worthy defense of his health care law. It also was the setup line for Obama to just-a-little-bit-patronizingly remind Republicans of the campaign consultants’ traditional advice: "We all owe it to the American people to say what we’re for, not just what we’re against."
Through it all, Speaker John A. Boehner was just a couple of feet behind the president’s left shoulder, visible in all but the tightest of tight shots as the manifestation of both his party and the entire legislative branch. Maintaining his equanimity in that situation, he told fellow House Republicans earlier in the day , is what makes the final Tuesday in January the "hardest day of the year" for him.
But Boehner almost always kept his composure in check and his tongue out of his cheek. The biggest exception? His penchant for choking up was on full display when Obama mentioned the speaker's upbringing in generating one of the night’s few big bipartisan applause lines. That "the son of a barkeep is speaker of the House," the president said, is evidence that "here in America, our success should depend not on accident of birth, but the strength of our work ethic and the scope of our dreams."