I have to apologize right here at the start, because that headline is not original. Credit should go to Chuck Todd of NBC, who stated during the State Of The Union coverage this week that President Obama had stolen the traditional post-election "honeymoon" period with the public right out from under the Republican Party's feet. We found this such an apt metaphor that we decided to run with it, so: "Thanks, Chuck!"
Most of our article today is going to deal with Obama and his speech, ending with the snappiest portions as this week's talking points. But before we get to that, let's take a quick look at what the Republicans have been up to, as well as some other minor political news of the week.
We'll begin with the Republican responses to the speech, of which there were many. This in and of itself is a sign of the disorganization within their ranks, but we only mention this in passing, for now. Joni Ernst gave an unbelievably short "official" Republican response (clocking in at a mere nine minutes), spending most of the time competing for the "I was born in a log cabin" modest-beginnings prize. Afterward, Salon helpfully pointed out that Ernst's family has been the recipient of almost a half-million dollars in farm subsidies -- which certainly buys a lot of bread bags!
Ted Cruz filmed his own response to the State Of The Union speech, showing once again how not-ready-for-prime-time he is. Somehow, someone on his team posted an outtake where he just stops and stammers "lemme start over" as Ted's official video. They've since removed it, but Huffington Post saved a copy for your enjoyment.
Speaker of the House John Boehner released his own reaction to the speech, where he just sent all the parts he didn't like down the memory hole. Salon reported that Boehner skipped over such portions as Obama explaining why "I am not a scientist" is a pretty silly argument, but (amusingly enough), within the article Salon chided Boehner's team for "slopping editing." Um, if you're going to criticize sloppy editing, maybe you should write it so that "[sic]" isn't necessary when copying and pasting, guys? Heh.
Kidding aside, various other Republicans and conservatives responded to Obama's speech, ranging from snarky to downright vicious.
Up on Capitol Hill, after the speech, Republicans continued the opening stages of their triumphant control of Congress. Here's how one Republican House member, Charlie Dent, summed up the Republican agenda's rollout:
Week one, we had a Speaker election that didn't go as well as a lot of us would have liked. Week two, we spent a lot of time talking about deporting children, a conversation a lot of us didn't want to have. Week three, we're debating reportable rape and incest -- again, not an issue a lot of us wanted to have a conversation about. I just can't wait for week four.
That "reportable rape and incest" portion refers to the first legislative black eye for John Boehner -- an anti-abortion bill that was so extreme that a whole bunch of Republican women in the House refused to support it. This bill not only defined the legitimacy of rape to a new Republican-Puritan standard, it also (surprise!) had a gratuitous big tax hike for small businesses. What's not to love, ladies? The entire thing would never have gotten through the Senate unscathed and would have been vetoed in any case, so it falls into the "political theater" category -- timed to coincide with the big annual anti-abortion march. In the end, Boehner had to pull the bill, proving that Republicans can't even manage a legislative stunt properly.
This just in: Republicans care about wage inequality and the poor. No... really! Don't believe me? Here are a few choice quotes from the past few weeks:
On Fox News after the State of the Union speech, Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) denigrated the administration's economic track record by doing his best Bernie Sanders impression.
"We're facing right now a divided America when it comes to the economy. It is true that the top 1 percent are doing great under Barack Obama. Today, the top 1 percent earn a higher share of our national income than any year since 1928," he said, quoting an oft-cited (by liberals) statistic from the work of economists Piketty and Emmanuel Saez.
Likewise, here's Mitt Romney, in a speech last week: "Under President Obama, the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse and there are more people in poverty than ever before." Sound-bite highlights from his past presidential campaign, you may recall, included a reference to the "47 percent" who don't pay federal income taxes and a conclusion that "my job is not to worry about those people."
Apparently his job description has changed.
Jeb Bush, too, has newfound interest in the lower income groups and deep inequity flourishing in our nation. His State of the Union reaction: "While the last eight years have been pretty good ones for top earners, they've been a lost decade for the rest of America." Sen. Rand Paul, as well: "Income inequality has worsened under this administration. And tonight, President Obama offers more of the same policies -- policies that have allowed the poor to get poorer and the rich to get richer."
I've been so personally gobsmacked at this turn of events that I wrote about it twice in the past week, summing up my feelings as: "Up is now down, topsy is getting downright turvy, and Mitt Romney is now a populist!" Later, after sober reflection, I decided to go with a football metaphor: "By doing so, however, [Republicans] are utterly ceding the home-field advantage to Democrats. At this early point, I don't even think many of them have realized the magnitude of this tactical political error, either." I mean, it'd be like Democrats deciding to run a presidential election on who could cut more taxes for wealthy people, or something.
Speaking of football, the big news this week was that the New England Patriots were caught cheating, once again. This quickly was labelled (ugh) "Deflategate," but that is not the only reason we're bringing it up in a political column. Because it is simply astounding that one quote wasn't given more attention this week by the media, perhaps because they had enough schoolboy jokes already from all the "ball" quotes from Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. But even the late-night comedy shows missed a bigger laugh line -- Vice President Joe Biden (who used to play as a receiver), was asked about the scandal on CBS and replied: "I like a softer ball." Do tell, Joe!
We kid, of course. Biden blowing his wife a kiss during the State Of The Union speech this week was actually one of the best moments of the big speech night, for us. Which brings us right back to our main subject for this week.
President Obama had a very good week, during which he gave a very good speech to Congress and the country. This was in the middle of the biggest month of improvement in Obama's public approval polling for his entire second term. Take a look at the charts over at Real Clear Politics to see -- Obama's approval has jumped four percentage points since mid-December. As of this writing, his daily job approval average stands higher than it stood for all of 2014. Most of this jump upwards took place before the speech, and his numbers are still rising, so we'll have to see where this trend tops out, but it's certainly a welcome change in trajectory for Obama fans.
Obama has been very active since the election, announcing bold move after bold move. The public is no doubt responding to this forcefulness. As politician extraordinaire Bill Clinton used to put it: "Wrong and strong beats weak and right every time." In other words, even if the public doesn't agree with everything a president does, they do like him to be decisive in his actions. Or maybe it's just all the cheap gas making people feel better, who knows?
Obama's speech, if it had a title, might have been called "It's OK To Be Optimistic Again." Obama decided that the economy is doing well enough that it is once again politically acceptable to talk of a brighter future for all. The Republican response speech, in contrast, seemed awfully packed with doom-and-gloom.
In fact, there's an excellent comparison to be made between the speech that Obama just gave and a campaign theme from years gone by. In announcing that America has reached the turning point and that the future looks bright, Obama brought to mind none other than Ronald Reagan's "morning in America" campaign from the 1980s. That is the magnitude of the impact Obama's speech will likely have, when we all look back at it in later years. That's our guess, anyway, and that's why we're giving Obama his 45th Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award.
[Congratulate President Barack Obama via the White House contact page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]
The Virginia jailbird who won his most recent election from prison and is currently on a work-release program where he legislates at the statehouse by day and returns to his cell at night was hit with more felony charges this week, this time not over his relationship with his 17-year-old receptionist, but over perjury and submitting a forged document to the court. But, as we've pointed out before, Joseph Morrissey is no longer a Democrat, so he won't be getting an award.
Instead, our Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week this week was, hands down, Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the New York state assembly. He was arrested yesterday by the F.B.I. on corruption charges. The court documents state that Silver is accused of "using the power and influence of his official position to obtain for himself millions of dollars of bribes and kickbacks masked as legitimate income."
Now, as always, people are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, so we will add the usual caveat: if Silver beats the rap, we will withdraw our MDDOTW award and apologize.
But it's not looking good for Silver, and he may in fact not be the last to make the handcuffed "walk of shame" in Albany. Rumors are the F.B.I. is looking at politicians in even higher offices, which must be making Governor Cuomo just a little tense right now.
A couple years back, I wrote an article about an amusing guy who is raising money to build a "Museum of Political Corruption." In Albany, New York. He's got a lighthearted attitude towards the project, which he partially described to me in an interview:
I envision a trip to the museum running like this: having paid the entrance bribe to get in (and there will be a table "under" which you pay your money), you enter the "Lobbyists Lobby" where you can check you coat (you can find it on eBay the following week). I think the "Lobbyist's Lobby" will be quite ornate, suitable for weddings between lobbyists and politicians.
In the midst of all the recent news coming from Albany (and the F.B.I.), we would like to once again encourage one and all to donate some funds to Bruce Roter's Museum of Political Corruption project! You can make donations in memory of Sheldon Silver's professional reputation, if you so choose. Heh.
Future "hall of fame" status aside, though, for now Sheldon Silver is without a doubt the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week.
[Contact New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on his official contact page, to let him know what you think of his actions.]
Volume 333 (1/23/15)
President Obama's State Of The Union speech was notable in one stylistic respect, because it held to an absolute minimum details about his policy proposals. There was a reason Obama was free to do this in his speech, and the reason was that the White House had already announced all their ideas (complete with details), before Tuesday night.
This represents a shift. In modern times, State Of The Union speeches have usually had at least a few surprise moments in them. Presidents of both parties have taken this route, teasing political reporters with "We've got a real stunner in the speech!" to build interest for the speech itself. These closely-held secret policy ideas are unveiled the night of the speech, and then other politicians gave off-the-cuff reactions to the ideas immediately afterwards.
Obama chose not to take this route, for the first time (in our recent memory, at least). He previewed all his new ideas in a series of speeches around the country last week, so by the time Tuesday rolled around there were no surprises left at all.
This freed up Obama to concentrate on the language of the speech itself, rather than getting bogged down in wonky details during what is normally called the "laundry list" portion of the speech. Instead of having to explain things, Obama could just briefly mention his idea while concentrating on justifying it as core to his values. This made for a much more watchable speech, in the end.
We aren't predicting that this will become the new normal for State Of The Union addresses in the future, but I bet this won't be the last such speech we see with no surprise moments. Unveiling the ideas early seemed to work pretty well for Obama, to put this another way.
Below are this week's talking points, all taken from the offical transcript of Obama's speech. As always, it's hard to pick just seven quotable moments, so we concentrated on the most memorable lines -- what we felt were the parts where Obama framed his subjects brilliantly. We had to ignore most of the policy ideas themselves, which we'll likely return to in the coming weeks and months (as the 2016 presidential race heats up). Obama not only gave a Reaganesque "morning in America" speech, he also created an excellent first draft of the Democratic Party's platform for the next election. But, as we said, we'll have plenty of time to hash over these ideas in the next two years.
For now, here are the parts that seemed likely to stick in people's minds. The best talking points from the speech, if you will. You may have your own favorite talking points, and we encourage everyone to read or watch the full speech, if you haven't already done so.
This is good news, people
Obama launched into an impressive list of accomplishments before this quote, including: "America is number one in oil and gas... [and] wind power"; "Our high school graduation rate has hit an all-time high"; and "10 million uninsured Americans finally gained the security of health coverage." He wrapped up this litany with an absolutely scathing condemnation of the Republican naysaying he faced along the way. But the best part was the ad-libbed line at the end of the first paragraph, spoken directly to the stony-faced Republicans in the chamber. The second paragraph opened with his most-repeated phrase of the night, "middle-class economics," which just on a wordsmithing level alone may become a new Washington buzzword from now on. Obama closes by drawing a bright line in the sand over protecting his legacy so far.
At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious; that we would crush jobs and explode deficits. Instead, we've seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health care inflation at its lowest rate in 50 years. This is good news, people.
So the verdict is clear. Middle-class economics works. Expanding opportunity works. And these policies will continue to work as long as politics don't get in the way. We can't slow down businesses or put our economy at risk with government shutdowns or fiscal showdowns. We can't put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance, or unraveling the new rules on Wall Street, or refighting past battles on immigration when we've got to fix a broken system. And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, I will veto it. It will have earned my veto.
You try it!
This one is short and sweet. While making the case for raising the minimum wage, Obama issued a direct challenge to Republicans (and all others who might not support the idea, to be fair). This direct challenge should be quoted whenever any reporter interviews any politician against the idea, in fact.
If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, try it. If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise.
More jobs than the rest of the developed world combined
This is an excellent talking point that Obama's been using for the past couple months. He's earned it by turning the employment picture around, especially in the last few years. This framing puts into perspective those who complain the American economy isn't growing fast enough -- take a look at the rest of the world, and then say that with a straight face.
Finally, as we better train our workers, we need the new economy to keep churning out high-wage jobs for our workers to fill. Since 2010, America has put more people back to work than Europe, Japan, and all advanced economies combined. Our manufacturers have added almost 800,000 new jobs. Some of our bedrock sectors, like our auto industry, are booming. But there are also millions of Americans who work in jobs that didn't even exist 10 or 20 years ago -- jobs at companies like Google, and eBay, and Tesla.
It's time to try something new on Cuba
Obama name-dropping the Pope didn't really work all that well, because it was kind of swallowed up by a burst of applause after the word "embargo," but the real snappy line was the second sentence. If it ain't working, maybe let's try something new, huh?
In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you're doing doesn't work for 50 years, it's time to try something new. And our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere. It removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba. It stands up for democratic values, and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo. As His Holiness, Pope Francis, has said, diplomacy is the work of "small steps." These small steps have added up to new hope for the future in Cuba.
That's what makes us exceptional
Obama was summing up the major points he made during the speech at this point. But he framed it well, because he co-opted the "American exceptionalism" idea and made it his own. We're not exceptional because we're the biggest, baddest country on the planet, Obama is saying, we're exceptional because of who we are. We hold ourselves to the highest of standards because that's who Americans are. This was just a fantastic example of framing an issue well.
Looking to the future instead of the past. Making sure we match our power with diplomacy, and use force wisely. Building coalitions to meet new challenges and opportunities. Leading -- always -- with the example of our values. That's what makes us exceptional. That's what keeps us strong. That's why we have to keep striving to hold ourselves to the highest of standards -- our own.
A story of freedom
This one is nothing short of a completion of Barack Obama's personal evolution, as well as an earned victory lap. Obama was speaking directly to the Supreme Court justices in the audience with this, and also reminding Republicans how this will increasingly become a losing issue for them in the very near future.
I've seen something like gay marriage go from a wedge issue used to drive us apart to a story of freedom across our country, a civil right now legal in states that seven in 10 Americans call home.
The biggest frame: we are a strong, tight-knit family
These are the final paragraphs from Obama's speech. Obama humanized his entire night by wrapping a frame around the speech from a letter a woman had written him. This is really where he both began and ended his speech. Morning in America, indeed.
[For context, Obama is finishing up a list of the America he wants to see today's children grow up in.]
I want them to grow up in a country where a young mom can sit down and write a letter to her President with a story that sums up these past six years: "It's amazing what you can bounce back from when you have to... we are a strong, tight-knit family who's made it through some very, very hard times."
My fellow Americans, we, too, are a strong, tight-knit family. We, too, have made it through some hard times. Fifteen years into this new century, we have picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and begun again the work of remaking America. We have laid a new foundation. A brighter future is ours to write. Let's begin this new chapter together -- and let's start the work right now.
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