State of Disunion

Obama’s call for bipartisanship fails to penetrate.

Slate on the State of the Union: John Dickerson says Obama returned to the themes he campaigned on.Bruce Reed praises the president’s reassuring, common-sense blueprint. Fred Kaplan argues the federal spending freeze should extend to the Pentagon, too. See images from Obama’s first year in office, as well as past presidential speeches, from Magnum Photos.

The floor of the House for the State of the Union

Perhaps the biggest news out of Wednesday night’s State of the Union address was not what occurred but what did not occur. No one held up handmade signs. No one waved copies of an alternative health care bill. And no one called the president a liar.

Still, if President Obama sought to rekindle a spirit of bipartisanship with his speech, there was little evidence of it in the crowd. Reactions to the president’s ideas, from the bank tax to the much-touted spending freeze to his call for Congress not to abandon health care reform, split visibly along partisan lines.

While Democrats jumped to their feet after nearly every sentence, Republicans greeted many of the proposals with skepticism. The bank tax drew Democratic cheers. Republicans were unmoved. When Obama suggested that health care reform “would bring down the deficit by as much as $1 trillion over the next two decades,” Republicans stayed quiet. During many of the bipartisan standing ovations—like those for Obama’s declaration that combat troops would be out of Iraq by August or his exhortation for the Senate to pass a bill supporting community colleges—Republicans were slow to rise. Even those policies you’d think would be palatable to Republicans were met with silence. “We cut taxes for 95 percent of working families,” Obama bragged. “We cut taxes for small businesses … and we haven’t raised income taxes by a single dime on a single person.”

Democrats went wild. Republicans didn’t move. “I thought I’d get some applause at that one,” Obama quipped, eyeing the GOP section to his left. House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, raised his hands, palms up, as if to say, What do you want from me?

There even seemed to be two standards for humor in the chamber. Democrats guffawed at the president’s quip that the bank bailout was “about as popular as a root canal.” Republicans did not. Some members of the GOP, meanwhile, cracked up when the president pointed out that his proposed spending freeze would not take effect “until next year, when the economy is stronger.” Obama seemed to find the laughter puzzling. “That’s how budgeting works,” he said.

Republicans, careful not to say anything vocally, used facial expressions and gestures to signal their disapproval. Sen. Jon Kyl of  Arizona looked pained during Obama’s drawn-out introduction. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan seemed to vacillate between incredulousness and outrage. When Obama solicited ideas from “anyone from either party” for how to reform health care, Boehner pointedly raised his hand.

While disapproval was par among Republican members, it also came from unexpected places. When Obama proposed legislation that would ban corporate campaign contributions—in refutation of the recent Supreme Court decision—Justice Samuel Alito shook his head and appeared to mouth the words Not true. AP Video: Justice Alito at the State of the Union

Outside the chamber after the speech, the battle continued. Democrats unanimously approved of Obama’s address. Should Obama have been more specific about how to proceed with health care? “In a speech like this, it’s hard to get into much detail,” said Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. Was Obama right to suggest that bipartisanship on health care reform is still possible? “Would you rather he didn’t?” asked Rep. John Dingell of Michigan. “I always have reason to believe they will come around.” Sen. David Vitter, R-La., was less sanguine. While he applauds attempts to tackle spending and the deficit, he said, “I didn’t see any change” in Obama’s approach to health care.

Sniping wasn’t just between the two parties. Democrats from each chamber seemed to believe it was the other chamber’s turn to act on health care. “We’re in a holding pattern at the moment,” said Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska. “It’s in the House’s court now.” Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York had a different take: “Did you hear the line he repeated the most? The Senate has to get to work.” (They weren’t the only ones disagreeing on who’s got the hot potato.)

That’s not to understate the moments of agreement. I counted no fewer than 17 bipartisan standing ovations. Everyone in the crowd could get behind sanctioning Iran, improving energy efficiency, and Obama’s bold assertion that he would “not accept second place for the United States of America.” President Obama, you do not lie.