How members of Congress decide when to sit, stand or heckle at a president's speech.

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Sept. 9 2009 11:29 PM

Reaction Shot

The raucous, ribald peanut gallery at Obama's address to Congress.

Rep. Joe Wilson. Click image to expand.
Rep. Joe Wilson

During any presidential address to a joint session of Congress, the president isn't the only one saying something. Members of Congress make a statement every time the president does—only with their feet instead of their mouths. (Although sometimes they use that too. Just ask Rep. Joe Wilson.)

President Obama's health care speech at the Capitol Wednesday night had more up-downs, cheers, jeers, and heckles than any State of the Union in recent memory. But behind every hoot, holler, and ovation was a complex, lighting-quick decision-making process. Let us break it down.

The pseudoscience of ovation-ology suggests that the president's speech was equal parts Democratic red meat and bipartisan overtures. By my count, the Democratic caucus alone stood and applauded 10 times during Obama's speech. Most applause occurred after determined or uplifting statements like "I will not let up until those Americans who seek jobs can find them" or partisan red meat like his quip that "too many initiatives over the last decade were not paid for." But Republicans applauded, too. The number of bipartisan standing ovations, with both sides of the House and Senate leaping to their feet, was nine. And once—after Obama's nod to medical malpractice reform—Republicans gave their own ovation.

Sometimes the appropriate response is obvious. When Obama said he wanted affordable insurance for everyone, GOP members rose to their feet, lest they risk being seen as churlish. When he mentioned medical malpractice, the Republican section responded with applause and hoots more likely to be heard in a beer hall than the halls of Congress. When he promised to "make sure that no government bureaucrat … gets between you and the care that you need," they had to applaud—the words could have been Sen. Mitch McConnell's.

Other times, Republicans were visibly conflicted on whether to clap or not. When Obama said that "our health care problem is our deficit problem," Democrats rose along with one Republican, Rep. Paul Ryan, who stood there with his lower lip thrust out as if to say, "Fair point." When the president made overt (some might say patronizing) attempts to reach across the aisle—"We should work together to address any legitimate concerns you may have"—the GOP side applauded, if grudgingly. The Republicans with the toughest jobs were the moderates: The senators from Maine, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, rose several times along with the Democrats, staring straight over the heads of their GOP colleagues.

Some individual members were animated throughout. When Obama said that slowing the growth of health care costs by one-tenth of 1 percent would reduce the deficit by $4 trillion, deficit hawk Paul Ryan rolled his eyes and grimaced, as if doing the calculation in his head. Republicans were also quick to laugh—a little too hard, perhaps—when Obama understated that "there remain some significant details to be ironed out."

But the guy who stole the show, of course, was Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina. When Obama said that health care reform will not cover illegal immigrants, Wilson shouted, "You lie!" Heads snapped, and the member next to him gestured for him to quiet down. Obama paused slightly and pointed, but seemed unfazed. (When the speech was over, Wilson vanished.)

Other members came equipped with props. When Obama said he would listen to the GOP "if you come to me with a serious set of proposals," a dozen members on the right waved aloft paper-clipped stacks of paper—bills, presumably. "Right here! Right here!" shouted one member. Others brought signs scrawled on the back of 8 1/2 x 11 sheets of paper. One GOP member alternated between flashing signs that read "What Plan?" and "What Bill?"

The speech was long—47 minutes—so members could be forgiven for zoning out. That seemed to be the case with John McCain, who took a long few seconds to perk up, smiling, after Obama praised one of his campaign ideas.

Democrats, for their part, had a much easier job: applaud as much as possible without making a fool of yourself. Most enthusiastic by far were Rep. Al Green of Texas, who shouted "That's right" when Obama said health care was a "moral issue" and waved his hand like an Atlanta Braves chop during lengthy ovations, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, whose regular "mmm-hmm"s could be heard all the way from the balcony.

Do the ups and downs matter? Yes—for about five minutes. (Or, if you're Joe Wilson, until the next election day.) But for those five minutes, the outbursts, calculated or not, provide a brief glimpse into the opposition's psyche.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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