By Dana Milbank, Published: September 9
Updated 3:15 p.m., Sept. 12
President Obama gave one of the most impassioned speeches of his presidency when he addressed a joint session of Congress on Thursday night. Too bad so many in the audience thought it was a big, fat joke.
“You should pass this jobs plan right away!” Obama exhorted. Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) chuckled.
“Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary — an outrage he has asked us to fix,” Obama went on. Widespread laughter broke out on the GOP side of the aisle.
“This isn’t political grandstanding,” Obama said. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) guffawed.
“This isn’t class warfare,” Obama said. More hysterics on the right.
“We’ve identified over 500 [regulatory] reforms, which will save billions of dollars,” the president claimed. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) giggled.
It was, in a way, more insulting than Joe Wilson’s “you lie” eruption during a previous presidential address to Congress. The lawmakers weren’t particularly hostile toward the president — they just regarded the increasingly unpopular Obama as irrelevant. And the inclination not to take the 43-percent president seriously wasn’t entirely limited to the Republicans.
The nation is in an unemployment crisis, and Obama was finally, belatedly, unveiling his proposals, but Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) thought this joint session of Congress would be a good time to ask Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to autograph a copy of the children’s book “House Mouse, Senate Mouse.”
Former representative David Wu (D-Ore.), forced to resign this summer over accusations of sexual impropriety, nevertheless showed up for the speech (in a business suit rather than his tiger suit) and took a seat among the Democrats.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Vice President Biden set the tone at the start. Waiting for Obama to make his way down the center aisle, they stood before the House and had a talk — not about jobs, but about golf.
“Seven birdies, five bogeys,” Boehner reported to Biden.
“You’re kidding me!” the vice president said.
“I missed a four-foot, straight-on birdie on the last hole,” Boehner said of another round.
“Whoa!” the vice president said.
“So, the next day,” Boehner went on, “I shoot an 86! Ha, ha, ha!”
“That’s incredible,” the vice president said.
Boehner went on about other memorable golf moments before an aide let the men know that their microphones were live.
Obama rose to the occasion with a bold jobs proposal that delighted liberals but also had elements conservatives grudgingly endorsed. Yet long before the speech, both sides had concluded that it didn’t much matter: Obama has become too weak to enact anything big enough to do much good.
“I thought it was a great speech,” said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) But the odds of Obama getting his plan through Congress “are probably as good as the Nationals winning the league this year.”
Presidential addresses to Congress are often dramatic moments. This one felt like a sideshow. Usually, the press gallery is standing-room-only; this time, only 26 of 90 seats were claimed by the deadline. Usually, some members arrive in the chamber hours early to score a center-aisle seat; 90 minutes before Thursday’s speech, only one Democrat was so situated.
Republican leaders, having forced Obama to postpone the speech because of the GOP debate, decided they wouldn’t dignify the event by offering a formal, televised “response.” And the White House, well aware of Obama’s declining popularity, moved up the speech time to 7 p.m. so it didn’t conflict with the Packers-Saints NFL opener at 8:30.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) had planned to skip the speech to host a football party, but the Senate majority leader thwarted his plan. “Typical Harry Reid,” Vitter tweeted. “He’s now schdld votes that should’ve been this morn 4 right b4 & right AFTER prez’s speech. Pens me in 2 have 2 stay.”
Almost all Republicans ignored the calls of some within their ranks to boycott the speech. In fact, the empty seats were on the Democratic side. Democrats lumbered to their feet to give the president several standing ovations, but they struggled at times to demonstrate enthusiasm. When Obama proposed payroll tax cuts for small businesses, three Democrats stood to applaud. Summer jobs for disadvantaged youth brought six Democrats to their feet, and a tax credit for hiring the long-term unemployed produced 11 standees.
Obama spoke quickly, urgently, even angrily. Rep. Jesse Jackson (D-Ill.) stared at the ceiling. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) scanned the gallery. Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) was seen reading a newspaper. And Republicans, when they weren’t giggling, were mostly silent.
Even a mention of Abraham Lincoln, “a Republican president who mobilized government to build the transcontinental railroad,” brought no applause from the GOP side. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) yawned. One Republican backbencher, Jeff Landry of Louisiana, chose this moment to hold up a sign demanding “Drilling = Jobs.”
So now even Lincoln doesn’t merit Republican applause when Obama invokes his name? If it weren’t so disturbing, it would be kind of funny.