Obama Didn’t Give Republicans the Speech They Wanted

My initial impressions of the State of the Union Address and Joni Ernst’s official GOP Response were posted last night beginning a bit before the 9:00 EST start time, if you’re interested. The next day I continue to be impressed with Obama’s success in wrong-footing Republicans with this speech, changing what could have been a nasty scene of GOP triumphalism over a president begging for “relevance” into an occasion when they looked to be bystanders.

That’s the topic of my TPMCafe column on the speech, which was written late in the night. But I’d say my impressions were best confirmed by the day-after reactions of the conservative commentariat, which in a word are petulant. A case in point is from Byron York, who generally tries to act like a reporter, not a pure partisan pundit. But his Washington Examiner column today is a long whine:

Perhaps the most striking thing about the 2015 State of the Union address was not the president at the podium but the audience in the seats. The joint session of Congress listening to President Obama Tuesday night included 83 fewer Democrats than the group that heard Obama’s first address in 2009 — 69 fewer Democrats in the House and 14 fewer in the Senate. The scene in the House Chamber was a graphic reminder of the terrible toll the Obama years have taken on Capitol Hill Democrats.

Not that the president would ever acknowledge that. Indeed, in more than an hour of speaking, Obama never once acknowledged that there was a big election in November and that the leadership of the Senate has changed. Obama’s silence on that political reality stood in stark contrast to George W. Bush’s 2007 State of the Union address, in which he graciously and at some length acknowledged the Democrats’ victory in the 2006 midterms. Bush said it was an honor to address Nancy Pelosi as “Madam Speaker.” He spoke of the pride Pelosi’s late father would have felt to see his daughter lead the House. “I congratulate the new Democrat majority,” Bush said. “Congress has changed, but not our responsibilities.”

If one cannot imagine Obama saying such a thing — well, he didn’t.

Aside from the hilarious implied suggestion here that Obama should have done some sort of “gracious” shout-out to Mitch McConnell, the man more responsible than any other for the obstructionist tactics of the GOP from the day Obama would first elected, York is reflecting the apparent anticipation of conservatives that Obama would crawl to the podium for this speech and spend an hour or so of national television time identifying issues on which the two parties could achieve “common ground,” which GOPers could then deride as too little and too late. And that’s why they are particularly infuriated by his apparent ad lib (though I thought it looked more like a planned trap given the predictable Republican applause at his remarks that his own elections were in the rear-view mirror) reminder that he’s been elected twice.

In conservative-land, you see, Obama’s first election was a fluke and his second a calamitous accident, both canceled by the ensuring midterms and both destined to be remembered as incidental interruptions of the Long March of Movement Conservatism towards total power. The idea that 2008 and 2012 are just as significant as 2010 and 2014 (maybe a bit more significant insofar as far more Americans participated) is outrageous to the Right, and so Obama mentioning them was the defiant act of a political nonentity.

Beyond that, the basic framing of Obama’s remarks on the economy left Republicans even deeper in the trap they’ve been in ever since conditions began improving. The main criticism available to them for the performance of the economy is the one Democrats (and Obama himself) have been articulated: sluggish wage growth and growing inequality. But Republicans have little or no agenda to deal with that beyond the usual engorge-the-job-creators stuff dressed up with attacks on the few corporate welfare accounts they’ve agreed to oppose, and then the Keystone XL Pipeline. On this last point, Obama was very clever in dismissing Keystone as one controversial infrastructure project we’re spending too much time fighting over as hundreds of others languish. It made Joni Ernst’s plodding Official Response sound all the more foolish for spending so much time on that one project.

The underlying reality was nicely captured by TNR”s Brian Beutler:

If Mitt Romney had won the presidency in 2012 and caught the wave of economic growth we’re now experiencing—after cutting both income taxes and domestic spending, and eliminating the Affordable Care Act—conservatives would have draped him in Reagan’s cloak, and the public would have warmed once again to the kinds of policies that George W. Bush’s presidency briefly discredited.

Or as Ezra Klein put it:

Imagine if Mitt Romney was giving the State of the Union address amidst these economic numbers. The cheering wouldn’t stop long enough to let him speak.

No wonder Republicans are still sore about 2012, and can’t decide whether to regard Mitt as the Great President Who Should Have Been or the bozo who couldn’t seal the deal.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.