It’s the first State of the Union address since President Obama defeated Mitt Romney and was sworn in for a second term. If the weeks between the election and inauguration are any indication, Obama is girding for a no-apologies and perhaps no-precedent term as his policy goals are coupled with no fear of a re-election campaign.
If his clear frustration over having his immigration speech undercut by senators’ announcement of a bipartisan framework is any indication, he’s hellbent to claim the mantle on what he sees as legacy issues. And if the emerging makeup of his second-term cabinet is as clear of an indicator, he’s drawing a tight circle of loyalists even closer as he plunges ahead with his domestic and foreign policy agenda.
So what can be expected as Obama stands in the chamber before both houses of Congress Tuesday night?
Ready, aim, gun control: Obama’s party says that they’ve invited victims of gun violence to highlight their own legislative aims, but members who are allocating their one guest ticket in this way are filling a chamber full of people Obama can reference and point to during his address as he advocates for stricter gun laws. Dems are even splitting their tickets to fill the seats with gun victims. Rep. Gloria Negrete McLeod (D-Calif.) is bringing Christopher McDonnell, the father of 7-year-old Newtown victim Grace McDonnell, while Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.) is bringing McDonnell’s wife, Lynn. “His presence at the president’s address this Tuesday will also serve as a powerful reminder that victims of gun violence are not just those who perish, but those who suffer from losing a loved one,” Negrete McLeod said.
Connecticut’s senators are expanding the guest list with Richard Blumenthal (D) bringing Newtown Chief Executive Officer Pat Llodra — a Republican, Blumenthal’s office stresses — and Chris Murphy (D) is bringing Newtown Detectives Jason Frank and Dan McAnaspie.
Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas), the shock-jock of the freshman class who has already called for Obama’s impeachment, has invited Ted Nugent as his guest. “I am excited to have a patriot like Ted Nugent joining me in the House Chamber to hear from President Obama,” said Stockman. “After the address I’m sure Ted will have plenty to say.” Meanwhile, Stockman will be live-tweeting the address with the hashtag #youlie — surely he should pay some royalties to Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who earned a formal rebuke from his House colleagues in 2009 after yelling “You lie!” to Obama during a joint session of Congress.
Half the story on sequestration: The White House mounted a full-court offense Friday against sequestration, claiming that if the mandated cuts go through without Republicans agreeing to a Democratic deal to stop them everything short of a zombie apocalypse would break loose. “Outbreaks of foodborne illness” would rise as kids get kicked out of Head Start and seniors starve as federal prosecutors don’t try criminals and hundreds of thousands of seriously mentally ill patients roam the streets. The White House tome claimed the cuts “could result in increased future HIV transmissions” and put more than 100,000 formerly homeless people back on the street.
What was missing from this plea to stop the $1.2 trillion in across-the-board cuts that will be trimmed with all the sensitivity of Leatherface? The area that will take half of the cuts in a serious blow to U.S. posture and national security.
“There was not one mention of the military, which is half of sequester’s cuts, in the White House’s fact sheet. I don’t know which is worse, the deafening silence from the White House or the tone-deafness about sequester’s impact on national security,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said Friday evening. “…I don’t doubt that important domestic programs will be in jeopardy if sequester falls in March, but our military is in jeopardy today.”
First-term revisionism: Where the gay community was disappointed with Obama’s first term, he can tell America on Tuesday night that the Pentagon, under his tenure, has approved certain benefits for same-sex couples (the day before). Where the Latino community thought he didn’t fulfill promises on immigration reform, he’s going to paint himself as the pied piper of a new effort for comprehensive, bipartisan reform (even though Congress beat him to it). And where everyone noticed that unemployment figures never moved that much, he’s going to talk job creation like Kevin Kline in the movie Dave.
White House press secretary Jay Carney was asked at today’s briefing about how Obama expects to push this bin of recycled items, particularly the campaign-era refrain about an emphasis on the middle class, and gave a glass-half-full preview: “Well, the economy is not in a worse place than it was before. If you talk about the comparison between now and when he gave his first State of the Union address, there is no comparison. We were in economic freefall,” Carney said. “What the President has been saying and I’m sure will say again is that we are at a moment when the economy is poised to continue to grow, to continue to build on the progress we’ve made, to continue to build on the job creation that we’ve achieved — over 6.1 million jobs created by our businesses over the past 35 or 36 months.”
Prom dates: There was hardly a Hill journalist — yours truly included — who didn’t mock the idea two years ago of somehow easing partisan rancor by picking a member of the opposing party to sit with during the State of the Union. It was just after the Tucson shooting in which Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) was seriously wounded, and partisan rhetoric was being blamed as much as nonpartisan triggerman Jared Loughner. So a 96-year-old tradition of across-the-aisle seating was abandoned and lawmakers scrambled to find their SOTU buddy. Not only did this result in a mixed chamber where we were denied the visual of one side cheering, booing, standing, what have you, it was an odd artificial display of unity in a chamber where Harry Reid is ready to whip out his old-school boxing moves any moment.
This year it appears that prom dates for the State of the Union is a new normal. Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) encouraged congressional leaders to keep up the warm and fuzzies. “This year, as we begin a new Congress, we are again asking our colleagues to sit together as representatives of the American people and not just representatives of political parties,” Udall and Murkowski wrote. “Political differences will always generate a healthy debate, but too often these differences prevent each side from even coming to the table to work toward the compromises and common-sense solutions our constituents want.” About half of the members of Congress have succumbed to peer pressure over the past two SOTU addresses and picked a bipartisan date.
Fight-picking: Regardless of whether members want to pretend they like each other, Obama will not be eager to craft any illusions that he wants to meet the GOP halfway. He’s going to raise a fuss if it becomes apparent by tomorrow night — after tomorrow’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing for Chuck Hagel — that his nominees won’t have smooth sailing through Congress. He’s going to accuse the GOP of stonewalling, obfuscating, and being extremist. He’s going to try to get an eye roll on camera, another Wilson yell, a middle finger from Nugent, something he can milk for everything it’s worth in his quest to paint his opponents as opposite of American consensus. And he knows that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is giving the Republican rebuttal — and that should get a good number of viewers — so he’s going to try to prebut the rebut by studying American-dream messages and administration criticisms in Rubio’s past speeches.
For now, he’s left that up to Democratic National Committee chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.). “I think because Sen. Rubio has been asked to do the rebuttal for the State of the Union and he’s from Florida, and the major politics of the Republican Party, which they have not shied away since the election, despite the election results, make it so that he is particularly open to criticism,” Wasserman Schultz said in a conference call.