The GOP’s response to President Obama’s first post re-election State of the Union address in some ways will be markedly different than in its response to his prior addresses.
But in one way it will be the same. Their blatant frontal assault on him didn’t work for four years. So this time, the GOP’s rebuttal will be softer and gentler in tone and theme. But underneath the flowery rhetoric, the GOP’s relentless attack on his policies is still very much in place.
The party is desperately trying to find some way — any way — to rebound from the November losses and is banking on their rising star Sen. Marco Rubio to soft sell its attack ploy. Rubio will hit the usual GOP fallback themes of freedom, liberty, free enterprise and restrained spending, and add a new wrinkle: responsible immigration reform.
These aren’t exactly code words and terms, but they’re close enough in that they subtly reinforce the ingrained notion of millions of Obama opponents and critics that he is an unreconstructed leftist, tax-and-spend, big-government, anti-business Democrat.
The State of the Union speech is always one of the most watched and listened-to political speeches. It’s a president’s report card on the past accomplishments and future initiatives of his administration and his vision for the country.
State of the Union addresses boost the stature, prestige and power of the presidency, and usually bump up the president’s approval rating by a point or two. The opposition’s response to the speech is typically feeble, pale and little-watched by Americans.
The history of the State of the Union speech underscores the power to shape policy and bolster the president’s image. President James Monroe announced the Monroe Doctrine in 1823. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln flatly called for the end of slavery in the rebellious states. This was the prelude to the Emancipation Proclamation he issued a year later.
Woodrow Wilson warned of the dangers of impending war in 1913. Franklin Roosevelt outlined the famed Four Freedoms in 1941. Lyndon Johnson unveiled the outlines of his Great Society program to fight poverty in 1965. Bill Clinton unveiled his health-care reform plan in 1993. George Bush prepped the nation for the Iraq invasion in 2002 and 2003.
Presidents quickly latched on to the media to give their State of the Union speech more exposure and political wallop. Calvin Coolidge gave the first radio broadcast in 1923. Truman gave the first televised broadcast in 1947.
The GOP’s attacks on Obama’s State of the Union address are not new. They hit their shrillest level with his second State of the Union address in January 2010. GOP critics leveled all sorts of absurd charges against him before he even uttered a word of his speech.
His first State of the Union address was hardly spared from withering GOP criticism either. The GOP harangued him for allegedly lashing out at Republicans. Business Insider headlined its State of the Union piece with the question, “A Less Partisan State of the Union?”
It scolded Obama for his criticism of the Supreme Court for its conservative majority decision in Citizens United in 2010. The decision opened the floodgate for corporations to pour unlimited dollars into elections with minimal checks and accountability. Major corporations and financial institutions wasted little time in doing that. They poured millions into the midterm election campaigns. The bulk of money, as Obama and the Democrats knew, went to ads for corporate-friendly GOP candidates and incumbents.
Obama pretty much tipped what he will say this year to a gathering of House Democrats. The centerpiece will be the looming battle over what and how big the GOP-demanded budget cuts should be. A part of that will be to extend the olive branch to obstructionist and intransigent House Republicans to get them to work out a deal to avoid fiscal gridlock.
But making nice with the GOP won’t stop it from again turning the tables and ripping him for allegedly being a polarizing, divisive leader. Former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels did exactly that in his rebuttal speech in 2012 again.
But Obama, as with his annual addresses in the past, is on firm ground in that Americans still overwhelmingly want him and Congress to end the rancor and work together to resolve the crucial problems that face the nation.
Obama will say that and so will the GOP. The difference is that one will really mean it and the other won’t. And the other that won’t is not the president.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.