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.
9:40: The president suggests that America needs an "all-of-the-above energy strategy." The room explodes, because the entire GOP conference is exhaling with a loud "HEYYYYYYYYYY!" Cantor breaks into a smile, teeth gleaming from across the room.
9:49: Obama needs to discuss the curse of burdensome regulation, so he tells a joke about an old rule that tortured dairy farmers. “With a rule like that,” he says, “I guess it was worth crying over spilled milk.” A shudder goes around the chamber; Rep. Chaffetz mimes a rim shot.
9:53: Obama praises the recess-appointed head of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, Richard Cordray. Republicans seethe, with one exception. Cordray’s predecessor, too hated by the GOP to get a vote, was Elizabeth Warren. When she opted out of the confirmation fight, she declared her candidacy for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts. The incumbent: Sen. Scott Brown. He’s applauding.
10:01: “Send me a bill that bans insider trading by members of Congress,” says Obama, “and I will sign it.” Rep. Billy Long, a former auctioneer who’s the size and shape of a rum barrel, gets up and thrusts his arm, shouting, “Wooooooo!” We might have a bill that can pass.
10:14: Obama closes by comparing Congress unfavorably with the SEAL Team that killed bin Laden. (Who could survive the comparison?) Why, when Obama presided over the mission, he worked alongside with a Republican secretary of defense and “Hillary Clinton, a woman who ran against me for president.” Clinton, who has been nodding and smiling at the shrimpiest menu items, laughs and nods harder.
10:49: The president has left the building. The members of Congress who can stand it are in Statuary Hall, not far from the chamber, where they can give short responses to waiting cameras. An employee of Fox walks around with candy: “We like to bribe our guests,” he jokes.
Rep. Trent Franks is raging against the speech. “This president has a skill for saying things that have no logical connection to what he’s doing.” Why did he, and every Republican, stand and cheer for that “all of the above” energy line? “Because that was our quote, and he appropriated it. He’s not acting on it at all.”
Sen. Mike Lee, a former Samuel Alito clerk, walks right past Franks. (For the second year since being criticized over the Citizens United decision, Alito skipped the speech.) Lee couldn’t believe that the president rubbed in his recess appointment. “Were it not for decorum, I would have done something when he said that,” he says. “It would not have been applause.”