Everyone seems to agree that President Obama’s State of The Union address to Congress was rather extraordinary – although not in a good way, if you were a Republican in Congress, and particularly if you were one of many of those who will be running for president if your deeply-divided party will give you that damned nomination. Something was slightly off. The Democrats had been blown away in the midterms – the new Congress will be the most Republican since Herbert Hoover was president, in those good old days when the rich were rich and everyone else wasn’t and the late twenties were actually roaring. The nation had repudiated everything Obama stood for and had done – Obamacare and all the rest. Obama was supposed to give a conciliatory speech, and beg for forgiveness, because he had been so wrong about everything, as the American people had now decided. He was supposed to say he’d sign into law anything that they’d pass, because now he knew better. And of course they would then prove that they could govern, and govern far better than Obama and his crew. At least that was the plan – but Obama didn’t cooperate. If this were a movie being shot out here in Hollywood, he refused to follow the script. Actually, Obama decided he was in a different movie.
Obama decided he was in a movie with the working title Middle-Class Economics – not some Ayn Rand movie with John Galt as the hero, where the selfish rich, by virtue of their intense selfishness, make the world a better place for everyone. They create jobs, or whole new industries, so we dare not piss them off. Heck, their side actually made those movies – Ron Paul and Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity had cameos in the latest one – but Obama’s movie was about everyone pitching in, even if it hurt each of them a bit, to make life better for everyone. Obama’s folks had done their homework. That polls well. Fairy tales about the ruthless heroic rich don’t – and it seems there’s no mandate in a midterm election with the lowest voter turn-out in history. Those who hated Obama, or who hated all he stood for and had done, or both, showed up to vote. Few others did. The Republicans had won big, but the sample size was too small to mean that everything had shifted. They didn’t seem to realize that.
Obama did, and in one of the behind-the-scenes stories, the New York Times reports on how the speech was written:
The morning after major Democratic losses in last year’s midterm elections, President Obama walked into the Roosevelt Room with a message for his despondent staff: I’m not done yet.
“These next two years are going to be the most interesting time in our lives,” he told them, according to a person in the meeting that day.
On Tuesday, Mr. Obama offered an estimated 30 million viewers a glimpse of that attitude when he delivered a self-assured, almost cocky State of the Union address after a year in which current and former White House advisers said he was often frustrated and at times discouraged.
“The president holding back is counterproductive,” said Jennifer Palmieri, the White House communications director, who described the president as feeling liberated and emboldened.
Although Republicans said Tuesday’s speech was further evidence that Mr. Obama lives in an alternate reality, divorced from their belief that voters repudiated the president’s agenda last year, inside the West Wing, there was relief that the sometimes brooding leader of the past year was gone.
The rest is who suggested what, and why, in constructing the speech, but it came down to this:
The economy’s improvement gave him the confidence to be unapologetic in his proposals. He entered the House chamber Tuesday night with a “spring in his step,” one adviser said, believing that his economic policies were finally taking hold.
“Sometimes, a speech like that looks like he’s being provocative,” said Phil Schiliro, who was Mr. Obama’s top legislative liaison in the president’s first term. “Basically, all he’s doing is saying what the facts are.”
The Washington Post’s E .J. Dionne covers the results of those facts:
“This is good news, people.”
With those five words, President Obama made clear that he thinks it’s far more important to win a long-term argument with his partisan and ideological opponents than to pretend that they are eager to seize opportunities to work with him. He decided to deal with the Republican Party he has, not the Republican Party he wishes he had.
He will no longer give them the benefit of the doubt, because they mean well. They don’t, and they were wrong and he was right:
“At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious,” he declared, “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 healthcare inflation at its lowest rate in 50 years.”
Good news, indeed, and in telling the Republicans that all their predictions turned out to be wrong, he reminded his fellow citizens which side, which policies and which president had brought the country back.
Salon’s Joan Walsh puts that this way:
President Obama delivered his second to last State of the Union address with an epic combination of sweet-talking and trash-talking, cajoling and trolling. He brought us the story of Rebekah and Ben Erler, who got through some economic troubles with their family intact. “It is amazing,” Rebekah wrote the president, “what you can bounce back from when you have to… we are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times.” You knew what was coming: Yes, Americans, we too are “a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times.”
Or more specifically, we’re a strong, tight-knit family whose Republican relatives have been wrong on Russia and Iraq, clueless about climate change and can’t even get right with the pope on Cuba.
Perhaps that’s trash-talk or taunting or something, but it’s not trash-talk if you can deliver, and Walsh adds this:
Since almost all of the president’s SOTU proposals were available for mass consumption days before the address, the night’s big questions involved theater, much of which was provided by Obama himself. But it was fun to watch Republicans frown at so many ideas they once supported. While much of the media framed Obama’s plan as a radical break from his first six years, that’s silly. I’m happy with what the president outlined, but it’s essential to say that aside from his community college proposal, he’s using mostly old-fashioned GOP ideas, though they’re DOA in this Congress.
No, really – almost all of the ideas that Obama offered really were their ideas:
He’s working through the tax code – providing expanded child tax credits, child care and higher education tax credits and second earner credits – not providing new social programs. Remember, that was the GOP response to the Great Society: Government is too big; why not let Americans keep more of their hard earned cash? Clearly Obama agrees. The plan is pro-family, pro-child and pro-work – and most of it only goes to the middle class, not the poor (the new credits aren’t refundable for low-income people who don’t pay taxes). Specifically, it borrows tax proposals from Republicans like former Rep. Dave Camp and Paul Ryan and Sen. Mike Lee. It brings capital gains taxes back to the level of the GOP’s favorite president, Ronald Reagan.
There’s another way to say that. Okay, fine – let’s do what you said you always wanted to do, and if it makes you happy, there’s nothing in here for the poor, who you say only need to shape up and learn some personal responsibility, and let’s go back to Ronald Reagan’s tax rates. You like him don’t you? Or were you just kidding about all this stuff? So, how about it?
That stumped them, and Ed Kilgore explains what happened next:
Republicans were very much bystanders last night. Obama did not allude to the midterm elections nor acknowledge the GOP takeover of the Senate. He did not treat Republican attacks on his use of executive authority as some sort of clash of the titans, and briskly bundled most of his veto threats into a single paragraph. His specific economic policy proposals (packaged as “middle class economics”) were exceedingly well-tested and very popular, and because Republicans oppose them all, he left them sitting on their hands.
And he managed to diminish recent GOP complaints and demands, dismissing the Keystone XL pipeline as just another infrastructure project, mocking the Cuba policies he is discarding as archaic, and describing his immigration actions as the exasperated expedient of a president tired of Republican divisions. Obama also probably wrong-footed Republicans by giving so little time to the tax proposals that got so much attention in the last few days. There was no hard-edged “populist” appeal to denounce as “class warfare” or “income redistribution.”
That led to the official party response this State of the Union, where that odd woman began be saying she wasn’t really giving one of those:
When Joni Ernst began her response to Obama, my initial reaction was that it was smart for Republicans to change the topic to their 2014 campaign message instead of trying to respond to Obama. But she probably lost a big chunk of the audience right off the bat with an extended version of her much-chewed-over campaign autobiography. Her famously “folksy” delivery also seemed less appropriate to the context of a State of the Union Address than to her hog castration-centered 2014 campaign message.
Worse yet, I got the sense Ernst’s scriptwriters thought her “story” was an adequate response to the craving for action to deal with economic inequality: if a “normal Iowan” like her could get to the Senate, then, by golly, everybody should cheer up!
There was nothing else to say:
What the evening indicated is that the GOP that came out of the November midterms so full of confidence and ready to put Barack Obama in his place continues to be off-balance and divided when it’s not simply opposing whatever the president proposes.
That’s an uncomfortable place to be. Frustration and anger is a natural response. Their president, a guy they had on the ropes, as they say in boxing, had made them look like fools – he punched back. As they say in poker, he had called their bluff – they had been holding a losing hand all along. Any metaphor will do. They had simply asked the wrong guy to come by and explain how the country was doing. It was unfair that this guy, with all his facts and their own tax plans, was their president. Could we have a do-over, with a different president, one who would show the world how right they were about everything?
That’s absurd, but they must have been thinking about that, because they just came up with the right guy this time to address a joint session of Congress and the American people, the real president, and that would be this guy:
House Speaker John Boehner is setting up his most dramatic foreign policy confrontation with President Barack Obama to date, inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak about Iran before a joint session of Congress on Feb. 11.
Netanyahu is a fierce opponent of the emerging U.S. nuclear agreement with the Islamic republic and has served as Obama’s foil, of sorts, as the negotiations have progressed. And his visit to Washington seems mostly for optics: When it comes to Iran, many Republicans and Democrats in the Capitol seem more closely aligned with Netanyahu than with Obama. The Israeli leader has addressed Congress twice. In 2011, he received a raucous welcome typically reserved for an American president.
But it’s different this time because the Republicans are pretty much saying that this is the president that America should have, not the Obama guy. They might be saying that THIS is our president:
Netanyahu’s speech could present a spectacle rarely seen in Washington – the leader of another nation, standing just blocks from the White House at the invitation of Congress to rebut the United States’ foreign policy.
In fact, Boehner did not consult with the White House or the State Department about inviting Netanyahu – a snub that White House spokesman Josh Earnest called “a departure” from protocol. Instead, Boehner’s and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s staff coordinated with Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S.
Israel doesn’t seem to consider Obama to be the real president and neither do the Republicans in Congress. Who was that skinny black guy Tuesday night? Forget him. Congress can decide who to listen to:
“Congress can make this decision on its own,” Boehner told reporters. “I don’t believe I’m poking anyone in the eye. There is a serious threat that exists in the world, and the president last night kind of papered over it. And the fact is that there needs to be a more serious conversation in America about how serious the threat is from radical Islamic jihadists and the threat posed by Iran.”
They found a better president, but this was awkward:
Earnest told reporters that the White House learned of the invitation Wednesday morning before Boehner’s announcement.
“The typical protocol would suggest that the leader of a country would contact the leader of another country when he’s traveling there,” Earnest said during the president’s flight to Boise, Idaho. “That certainly is how President Obama’s trips are planned when he travels overseas. This particular event seems to be a departure from that protocol.”
Asked whether Obama would meet with Netanyahu, Earnest said, “We haven’t heard from the Israelis directly about the trip.”
Obama has been left behind:
“You may have seen that on Friday, the president warned us not to move ahead with sanctions on Iran, a state sponsor of terror,” Boehner said in the Republican meeting. “His exact message to us was, ‘Hold your fire.’ He expects us to stand idly by and do nothing while he cuts a bad deal with Iran. Two words: ‘Hell no!’ … We’re going to do no such thing.”
They’ll listen to the real president, Benjamin Netanyahu:
“I am specifically asking him to address Congress on the threats posed by radical Islam and Iran,” Boehner said in the meeting. “America and Israel have always stood together in shared cause and common ideals, and now we must rise to the moment again. Let’s send a clear message to the White House – and the world – about our commitment to Israel and our allies.”
They’ve had enough, and at Talking Points Memo, Dylan Scott has more:
The move came the day after Obama threatened in his State of the Union address to veto legislation putting new sanctions on Iran. He warned that new sanctions by Congress would disrupt the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) acknowledged the week before that ending negotiations “is very much an intended consequence” of a new sanctions bill that has been put forward with some Democratic support.
Andrew Sullivan sums that up:
It’s not exactly a secret that almost the entire GOP wants any negotiations with Iran to be sabotaged and war initiated … but to get a foreign prime minister to come to the US to demand a war against a third country – and while talks are at a very delicate stage? That’s some major disrespect there. Nothing we haven’t gotten used to, but disrespect nonetheless. And then there’s the tacit blessing this gives to the incumbent prime minister – who has ruled out a two-state solution for the foreseeable future (i.e. ever) – in a difficult re-election fight.
Obama really has been left behind. He doesn’t set foreign policy now, it seems, but he did make the Republicans look foolish on Tuesday night, so he should have expected something nasty in return. On the other hand, Scott notes that some think this goes a bit too far:
Experts on American-Israeli relations expressed shock that Boehner had invited Netanyahu to address Congress on Iran next month. One described it as an effort to “humiliate” and “embarrass” Obama as the two sides dig in over Iran. The invitation from the Ohio Republican positions Congress, rather than the White House, as Israel’s ally.
“It’s unprecedented. It’s hitting below the belt. It’s taking partisanship to a whole new level,” Guy Ziv, a professor at American University who has studied U.S.-Israeli relations, told TPM. “It is a way for them to embarrass and humiliate the Obama administration.”
And it’s a new way:
Foreign leaders, including Netanyahu, have addressed joint sessions of Congress before. But the transparently political element of having Netanyahu, who has been a forceful critic at times of the international negotiations with Iran, speak on this specific topic and at this particular time makes the invitation from Boehner distinct from those past examples.
“It has a symbolic meaning that is not very positive in the long run,” Yoram Peri, who served as senior adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and is now a professor at the University of Maryland, told TPM, “because we know there is a major difference of opinion between the House and the president.”
Netanyahu’s forays into American politics have a long history; he would sometimes align himself with the Newt Gingrich-led Republican Congress in the 1990s. But the Boehner invite still struck those familiar with the issue as wholly different given its political symbolism. ….
“It’s moving behind-closed-doors politics into the public arena,” Peri said.
Or as Ziv put it: “They’ve taken it to a whole different level.”
And this must be said:
Ziv even suggested that Republicans were rewarding Netanyahu for his tacit support of Romney in 2012. It will undoubtedly play well with a substantial part of the Israeli electorate.
“This will really demonstrate that the other candidates are not as his level,” Ziv said. “Who else has close friends in Congress? This shows gravitas.”
Ed Kilgore, however, sees unintended consequences:
To be clear, the Speaker of the House can invite anybody he wants to address Congress, and the president cannot do much about it. So while the invitation is not a breach of protocol for Boehner, it’s a really bad idea for Bibi. Not only will it further alienate the people who actually conduct America’s foreign policies; it will also expose Netanyahu’s habit of indiscretion in seeking to manipulate partisan divisions in this country in pursuit of his own interests.
I’m sure his defenders will make the plea that Iran’s nuclear program represents an “existential threat” to Israel, making all normal diplomatic rules disposable. But since everybody agrees that Iran’s a major global problem and disagree on how to deal with it, Netanyahu would be better advised to make his case in private. But bullying and excessively Machiavellian maneuvering do seem to be a basic part of his personality…
Bibi is not alone in that. Israel has effectively bypassed a president they don’t like, rendering him moot – a nonentity – but John Boehner has effectively removed a president from office, at least in this matter, without all that messy impeachment business. No one had to wait for an election either. That’s good, because Republicans keep losing presidential elections – there just aren’t enough angry old white men any longer. And we may have a new nation-state in a way now, Israel-America – without all that messy war and revolution business.
That may be reading too much into this, but Obama has only himself to blame. He wasn’t nice to the Republicans on Tuesday night. They chose another president to speak to them and to the American public.