What were your favorite parts of State of the Union address last night – John Boehner's tan? Obama's burn to all the Republicans about having no more campaigns to win? Amidst all the policy, drama and more, here's three things I learned from Obama's speech.
1) The State of the Union is just one giant party
The pomp and ceremony of the State of the Union (SOTU) address has escalated to unnecessary proportions. George Washington would be rolling in his grave right now. Yes, it's required by the Constitution, but the norms and nuances that have developed over the years have become too gilded and symbolic.
First, there’s the entrance and exit of the president. Obama must have kissed over 100 cheeks as he made his way to the lectern. Congressmen and women camp out on aisle spots in the House chamber for hours before the event actually begins, in order to have a chance to be seen interacting with the president. Many members also wear brightly colored suits for the same reason: just to get noticed. It takes him nearly 20 minutes to get down a 30-foot aisle.
Then there’s the applause phenomenon – Obama can barely get one phrase out with a pause for applause (but only from the Democrats, of course). At times it was every other sentence, and John Boehner’s behavior was priceless.
This subconscious evolution of the chamber’s behavior reveals Congress’ mindset better than any direct comments ever could. If anything, the leaders of the United States seem to be doing less of what they’re supposed to: accomplishing legislative action, and more of what’s best for their personal interests. Not a pretty picture to paint of Washington as 2015 starts off.
2) The wordsmith duo is still perfect
Move over Michelle, because Cody Keenan and Barack Obama are a match made in heaven. Keenan has been the president’s speechwriter for most of his second term after succeeding Jon Favreau in 2013. He graduated from Northwestern in 2002, and rose to prominence after he wrote President Obama’s highly regarded speech in the aftermath of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting in 2011.
It’s difficult for anyone, whatever their political beliefs, to deny that Barack Obama is a brilliant orator. The man delivered 6,500 words without a hitch, and even managed to go off-script to burn Republicans when they applauded him saying, “I have no more campaigns to run.” But he also has an incredible ability to hold listeners, to draw them into what he’s saying, and he’s done it time and time again.
The New York Times recently published an piece looking at the speechwriting process for SOTU that revealed how often the president rewrites the entire speech from what he sees in the first draft. But in recent times he and Keenan haven’t had to do that. Obama and Keenan have really begun to hit their stride, but their combined power from the podium will have to overcome an election mandate favoring conservatives in November. The pair’s level of success in using public addresses to sway public opinion could make a tangible difference in whether Republicans come to the negotiating table.
3) The Republican response was a failure
Whoever had the idea to put Joni Ernst in front of a camera directly after the oratorical master class from the president simply isn’t thinking straight. A veteran who comes from a tough working-class background, Joni Ernst has earned my respect. But her response was a disaster.
Her never-ending smile was like the Chesire Cat on national TV, and her tone of voice was reminiscent of a kindergarten teacher. The content of her speech lacked punch as well. The only definitive stance she gave on part of President Obama’s actions or agenda was to reject Obamacare’s success and legitimacy, which is hardly a new development for the Republican position. Instead, she chose to talk at length about her own upbringing and American roots, which, while commendable, does not help anyone understand how the majority party in congress plans to govern the country.
I was hoping for a proposal for several brand-new conservative initiatives that were doable, even if contradictory to the President's speech. Instead the rest of Ernst's speech, besides her backstory, was mostly ambiguous moral and ideological statements against Democratic initiatives. Unfortunately, her statement reveals that as the 114th Congress gets under way, the only foreseeable future for Capitol Hill is continued gridlock.