There are years when the State of the Union is used to gird America for war and years when it doesn’t much matter. A long speech can pack in proposals that are law already (a ban on congressional insider trading!) and lines that were demo’d, then ignored, in old SOTUs. The expectations for Tuesday’s speech were especially low. They got lower when Republicans pre-emptively called it “pathetic” (Rep. John Boehner) or the “final” SOTU of a one-term president (Rep. Jason Chaffetz).
You can work with low expectations. The president’s task was to give a speech that 1) made his general election argument while 2) portraying Republicans as unpatriotic obstructionists and 3) mentioning a couple of bills that may actually pass. For the last time this year, the opposition party had to sit there and take it.
8:43: The rows alongside the entrance to the House floor have been occupied for hours. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee. Rep. Louie Gohmert. Rep. Jean Schmidt. It’s the same people every year. There’s Rep. Eliot Engel, who has admitted that the seat-squat makes him famous. “Six months from now, someone will say to me, ‘Congressman, I saw you on TV,' ” he said, “and I'll think it was in a brilliant interview ... what was I saying? And they'll say, 'No, no, you were shaking the president’s hand.’ ” He didn’t seem to be ashamed by this. Before the speech starts, he fields phone calls, settled in his chair as if he was about to captain the Enterprise.
8:53: For the second year, a clutch of Democrats and Republicans are sitting together, declaring small wars on partisanship. There’s Sen. John Hoeven next to Sen. Amy Klobuchar! Look, Sen. Jeff Sessions is discussing something with Sen. Ron Wyden! Rep. Peter King and Rep. Charles Rangel still get along. They all stand when their inspiration arrives—Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the survivor of a bullet to the head, who’s retiring this week to keep recuperating. Rep. Jeff Flake, an arch-conservative who might once have challenged her for a Senate seat, keeps her steady as she waves, pumps her fist, and talks with well-wishers. Louie Gohmert, possibly the most right-wing member of the House, temporarily abandons his aisle seat to share a moment with Giffords.
9:00: The president’s Cabinet arrives. Dozens of Republicans have asked for Attorney General Eric Holder to resign. He deftly moves right past them, shaking hands with Democrats.
9:05: The president himself arrives. Eliot Engel gets a fantastic piece of video.
9:12: The speech begins with the oldest trick of the pseudo-event, an appeal to the troops (“this generation of heroes”) that gets everyone on their feet, clapping. Then he mentions that there are “no Americans fighting in Iraq.” Some hands, including the ones belonging to Joe Lieberman, stay on laps.
9:18: Obama tells a capsule history of the recession—4 million lost jobs before he took over, four million more “before our policies were in full effect.” There’s good news: In two years “businesses have created more than three million jobs.” Only Democrats clap when he says this. The most enthused is Rep. Shelley Berkley, who is sitting in a sea of Republicans, wearing a pinkish blazer, standing out like a birthday candle.
9:21: Obama declares victory in the war to save General Motors. “What’s happening in Detroit can happen in other cities,” he says, and Rep. Hansen Clarke, a freshman who represents much of the city, applauds totally alone.
9:27: “If the playing field is level,” says Obama, “America will always win.” For the first time, Rep. Eric Cantor applauds and rises on his heels. He’d been staring right through the president, reacting as little as his facial muscles would let him.