Obama's And Daniels' Speeches Follow Classic Party Lines

Jan 25, 2012
Originally published on January 25, 2012 8:48 am

This year's State of the Union address may have set a record for fewest surprises.

The usual elements were all in place, starting with the sergeant at arms shouting across the din of the chamber, quieting the crowd of worthies from both House and Senate, the Cabinet and the Supreme Court.

Then the president made his way down the center aisle, shaking hands with the members who had sent staff members to reserve these favored seats for hours for just this moment.

As has become a tradition, there were heroes and inspirational figures joining the first lady in the gallery, each with a story deserving of greater attention.

The most moving, of course, was Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who returned to the chamber on the night before she resigns to concentrate on her recovery from a gunshot wound. A radiant Giffords shared a long hug with the president and provided the one moment of true, bipartisan good feeling in a long night of largely partisan ritual.

The State of the Union by definition is a long report on how the country is doing, a compendium of issues and ideas, problems and programs, the ultimate example of art by committee. At moments in the past, it has been the occasion for high drama and even uplift.

But such moments tend to correspond to national crises, threats from an alien power or economic peril. Compared to such historic junctures, this year's occasion was relatively predictable and dominated by the pending election in November.

There were appeals to what unites Americans, and even to what may unite the warring parties in Washington. But the spirit and bite of the address were not found in these moments, but in the throwing down of the gauntlet.

We watched a president, hovering just below 50 percent approval in the polls, confront a largely hostile Congress that is even more unpopular. Neither is helping the other, and they know it. But neither knows what to do but go on fighting.

Thus 2012 promises to be a year of negligible accomplishments and maximum maneuvering for electoral advantage. That was surely the portent of the two speeches we heard: the president's and the shorter but sharply worded riposte from Mitch Daniels, the governor of Indiana and designated Republican responder.

The White House had signaled that the president would renew the themes of his Dec. 6 speech in Osawatomie, Kan., channeling the Teddy Roosevelt attacks of a century ago against concentrations of wealth. Clearly, this was a moment to frame the national debate for the re-election campaign.

The president did not disappoint, calling on those who make a million or more a year to pay no less than 30 percent on the amount over a million. "You can call that class warfare all you want, but asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense," he said.

Daniels was having none of such constructs. Business people are doing what drives the economy and should not be demonized, he said.

Daniels had moments of sounding like a speaker at a Midwestern Rotary Club luncheon, but he also showed some of the mind and gravitas that have attracted more national notice. Given the many meltdowns in this year's GOP presidential field, Daniels had to look awfully good to those Republicans still seeking a champion.

As NPR's Mara Liasson noted, Daniels' popularity was a case of "buyer's remorse, even for those who haven't bought anybody yet."

The messenger for the GOP may not have been chosen yet and may not be for months. But the lines of battle for the campaign have already been drawn about as clearly as possible — with no surprises on either side.

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