State of the Union 2011

Live Blogging From Our Writers

Michele Bachmann has finished giving her alternate response, presented by Tea Party Express and broadcast on CNN (which is airing a Tea Party Express presidential debate this year).

Bachmann and Ryan brought the same policy message essentially--cut, cut, cut--but with very different styles. Bachmann's speech was laced with aggressive rhetoric and grand, Old Testament-style mythic phrases about the greatness of America.

"I believe that America is the indispensable nation of the world" ...

"Who's to say we won't see a miracle again?"

My final thoughts: I'd put this speech in the same category as Obama's inaugural address. The point wasn't soaring rhetoric or soothing the nation, as the president has done so well on so many occasions, from his 'race speech' in Philadelphia to his recent speech in Tucson. Instead, like the inaugural address, tonight's speech seemed like it was intended to do a job: to set the agenda and refocus the nation's attention where Obama would like it to be. At the same, it seemed designed to recast his own image, or perhaps reinforce the one he's cultivated since December, as someone who has finally gotten the message that he should be focused on jobs, jobs, jobs. And "winning the future," whatever that is. I thought too much of the speech came across as hucksterish and hokey, as though Obama were fresh from some all-day motivational conference by Tom Peters or some other catch-phrase spouting business guru type. But if only through bludgeoning repetition, I think he got his point across. He's going to focus on jobs.

Paul Ryan was a genial messenger for a tough message in his response to the SOTU, and gave the downbeat speech Obama didn't.

Speaking candidly, as one citizen to another: We still have time... but not much time. If we continue down our current path, we know what our future will be.

Just take a look at what's happening to Greece, Ireland, the United Kingdom and other nations in Europe. They didn't act soon enough; and now their governments have been forced to impose painful austerity measures: large benefit cuts to seniors and huge tax increases on everybody.

Their day of reckoning has arrived. Ours is around the corner. That is why we must act now.

"This is a future in which we will transform our social safety net into a hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency": powerful metaphor or premise for sci-fi comedy film? Ryan strikes an objectivist, anti-welfare-state note that will resonate with the fiscal-conservative base.

"Americans are skeptical of both political parties, especially when it comes to spending," Ryan says.

That encapsulates Tea Party angst, in a way: The movement is made up of people who didn't want to vote for John McCain and were also disenchanted with Bush over his administration's spending levels and his initiation of the TARP bailout.

Ryan probably did well to acknowledge that, since so much of the GOP's activist base claims to be fed up with both parties, and since his colleague Michele Bachmann is about to give an alternative, tea-party SOTU response.

What can Paul Ryan do to avoid becoming the next Bobby Jindal? Not much, perhaps. He's articulate and knowledgeable, but he shares some traits with Jindal: they're both young policy wiz-kids who, by virtue of that wonkiness, can come off as...a bit nerdy at times. We'll see how it goes.

Toward the end of his speech, the president gave props to the men seated behind him throughout it, Vice President Biden and House Speaker John Boehner.

Biden smiled broadly and pumped his fist at the mention of Scranton, and Boehner's face crumpled and he looked near tears when he received applause for his journey to his present seat from a bar in Cincinnati.

I wonder if this isn't going to turn into a bit of a Washington parlor game, for people to see if they can make Boehner cry by being nice to him and showering him with praise for his humble beginnings.

The speech is over:

"We do big things.

"The idea of America endures. Our destiny remains our choice. And tonight, more than two centuries later, it is because of our people that our future is hopeful, our journey goes forward, and the state of our union is strong.

"Thank you, God Bless You, and may God Bless the United States of America."

It took about an hour.

I sort of included Boehner getting misty-eyed on this BINGO! game as a joke, but I think he almost did well up when Obama talked about his roots sweeping floors in his dad's bar

A preview of what the business community will read about this speech: Financial Times headline: "Obama lays down challenge to business"... lede: "Barack Obama challenged US business to sacrifice tax loopholes in exchange for the first reduction in corporate tax rate in 25 years.

If you've been playing card 1 of The Atlantic's State of the Union Home-Edition BINGO! game, you may have just won.

"The Iraq war is coming to an end"--interesting word choice, since the administration announced last year that all "combat operations" had already ended, though support/training troops and civilian contractors remained.

A quick recap on where things stand with earmarks: Senate and House Republicans have both voted among themselves not to request any earmarks, though neither of those agreements are strictly binding. Since Republicans control the House Appropriations Committee, and Democrats control the Senate Appropriations Committee, it has seemed possible that Senate and House negotiators would come to the table with earmarks in the Senate versions of spending bills, and no earmarks in the House versions (unless some Republicans--Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), ahem--request them anyway.

Obama's pledge seems to nullify all that speculation.

Obama promises a strong stand against earmarks: "if a bill comes to my desk with earmarks inside, I will veto it."

Obama approaches the topic of health care with a light touch.

"Now, I've heard rumors that a few of you have some concerns about the new health care law," he quips.

Later, he makes a joke about the structure of the federal government:

"We live and do business in the information age, but the last major reorganization of the government happened in the age of black and white TV. There are twelve different agencies that deal with exports. There are at least five different entities that deal with housing policy. Then there's my favorite example: the Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them in when they're in saltwater. And I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked."

The chamber laughs and the applause, for a change, sounds genuine.

Obama even gets a smile from John Boehner with his line about salmon falling under the Interior Dept.'s jurisdiction in fresh water and the Commerce Dept.'s jurisdiction in salt water. "I hear it gets even more complicated when they're smoked." Boehner acknowledges that this is kind of funny.

Obama reopens the fight over the Bush tax cuts: "We should ask millionaires to give up their tax break. it's ... about promoting America's success."

This is going to play a big role in the 2012 campaign, as the tax cuts are set to expire (yet again) at the end of 2012.

Did Obama leave the door open to changing the health care reform law?

"...anything can be improved. If you have ideas about how to improve this law by making care better or more affordable, I am eager to work with you."

And:

"So instead of re-fighting the battles of the last two years, let's fix what needs fixing and move forward."

It takes a talented speaker to deliver a laugh line on high-speed rail. But that's what Obama just did: "Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail, which could allow you go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying - without the pat-down [AUDIENCE LAUGHS ABOUT UNCOMFORTABLE TOUCHING]." First laugh-line of the night.

Obama's Sputnik/space race analogy is perhaps a touch ironic. During the 2008 campaign, when Obama was asked how he'd fund his education platform, he suggested he'd cut or "defer" funding to some NASA programs. Space-flight advocates saw the two in conflict during the '08 campaign.

He's also suggested funding increases for NASA, but he's called for scrapping NASA's "Back to the Moon" program as well. "The president's proposed NASA budget begins the death march for the future of U.S. human space flight," said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) around this time last year.

Interesting to see Obama mention NASA now during a speech that heavily involved education, when funding priorities are pretty tough to balance.

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