The most significant revelation of this week's State of the Union address was that as much as the Republicans hate Obama, they hate each other even moreby Diane Roberts / January 30, 2014 / Leave a comment
Obama has pledged to go it alone ©PA Images
Presidents traditionally decamp from Washington as soon as the last claps die away, leaving the punditry to grade their latest State of the Union speech. Was it passionate? Eloquent? Confrontational? Substantive? Which designer was the First Lady wearing? This time the verdict is that Barack Obama significantly watered down the ambitious plans of last year, when he demanded comprehensive immigration reform, gun control, reigning in Wall Street and getting aggressive with climate change. The president knows that congressional Republicans are unlikely to agree with him on whether the sun rises in the east, much less work with him on substantive issues. The most interesting moments of the State of the Union speech weren’t actually in the speech itself, but appeared afterward, in the multiple formal responses.
This quasi-monarchical ceremony in which the president processes into the House of Representative to put forth his vision for the coming year as the assembled members of the three branches of government applaud (or don’t) went off much as expected. There were the usual guests-as-national-examples in the First Lady’s box: the first female CEO of General Motors, a gay professional basketball player, a wounded soldier, and a woman from Illinois whose unemployment benefits have run out because Congress refuses to renew them. There were the usual bouts of sartorial speculation by the media: President Obama sported a sky blue tie, the colour of the Democratic Party —does that mean that he’s given up working across the aisle? Michelle Obama wore a dark green dress by the Tunisian designer Azzedine Alaca. Is this proof that the First Lady is ashamed of her country? Or is it a nod to the Arab Spring?
As for the speech itself, Obama was relaxed as he chided Congress–which polls show is less popular with the American people than colonoscopies and cockroaches–for spending all their time either debating the scope of government or staging another pointless vote on the Affordable Healthcare Act. He warned them that if they continue their obstructionist ways, he would govern via executive order: “America does not stand still,” he said. “And neither will I.”
The president pledged to raise the minimum wage for federal contracts, ramp up regulations on polluters, demand gender equality in pay, keep on top of Syria, Afghanistan, Russia, Iraq and especially Iran, foster science, and attack income inequality. As much as he can, at least.
But, the good stuff came later, when the Republicans demonstrated that much as they hate Barack Obama, they hate each other almost as much. One response used to suffice: now they can’t trust each other to present what they see as the “real” Republican position. Texas senator Ted Cruz kicked off his 2016 presidential campaign by issuing a statement demanding that the president tell the “truth” about the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi among other things. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky began his run for the White House on YouTube, lecturing the nation on laissez-faire economics, “class envy” and gender politics. Only a few days earlier, Paul had told NBC News that there is no “war on women” and if there is, women can claim victory. His view was based on the claim (which turned out to be false), that more than half the students at medical and law schools are female. “I worry about our young men sometimes, because I think the women really are outcompeting men in our world,” Paul said.
The Official Tea Party Response came courtesy of Mike Lee, a Republican congressman from Utah, who insisted that inequality is all the government’s fault, along with a decline in “traditional American values” symbolised by the legalisation of same-sex marriage and abortion.
Party spokeswoman, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, was tasked with delivering the official, sanctioned Republican Response. Sat primly on a gold brocade sofa with a folded American flag on a table behind her, recounting anecdotes of the blood-clotting horrors of “Obamacare:” cancelled policies! Increased premiums! Strange doctors! She was sweet, friendly and sane-looking–everything that Cruz, Lee and Paul are not. Her House colleague, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami, gave essentially the same speech in Spanish, except instead of telling how she picked apples on her family’s farm and worked at a McDonald’s Drive-Through for tuition money, she talked of fleeing Cuba after the Revolution.
Those who stuck around to watch the post-speech interviews from the capitol were rewarded with the spectacle of Republican Congressman Tim Huelskamp tweeting that Barack Obama is a “lawless” dictator plotting to take Americans’ guns and perpetuating the “hoax” of climate change on the nation. When Rachel Maddow, a former Rhodes Scholar who now hosts a political chat show on MSNBC, questioned him about specifics, he accused her of being a “cheerleader” for Obama’s administration.
Meanwhile, on another network, a New York congressman, Michael Grimm, objecting to a reporter’s line of questioning, threatened to throw the reporter “off this balcony”. Cameras still rolling, he impugned the reporter’s masculinity and added, “I’ll break you in half.”
Ah, the majesty of democracy!