State of the Union Congressional Debrief

State of the Union Congressional Debrief

January 25, 2012
Washington, DC

A full crowd gathered at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., for The Atlantic and National Journal's tenth annual State of the Union Congressional Debrief on Wednesday, January 25.  The two-hour event featured five sessions with Republican and Democratic Hill leaders and top political journalists dissecting the president’s State of the Union Address and analyzing how it will impact the hotly contested 2012 elections.

Our Debrief was the hot ticket in town the morning after the president’s big speech. National Journal’s Editorial Director, Ron Brownstein, was joined by top journalists, Atlantic Editor-in-Chief James Bennet, New York Times scribe Jackie Calmes, and National Journal’s  Major Garrett – peppering members from both sides of the aisle with smart questions in a conversation that veered wildly according to the party affiliation of the member on stage.

Senator John Barrasso [R-WY] kicked off the morning by condemning the president for a partisan speech which recycled stale ideas. Barrasso contended that the president has not done enough to create jobs, citing the Obama Administration’s opposition to the Keystone pipeline despite the bipartisan congressional support for the project. Unfortunately, for those of us who have wearied of bitter divisions in congress, the ever brilliant analyst Ron Brownstein says he believes the 2012 elections will divide the country more than ever. Senator Barrasso defended the high partisanship saying, “I've always thought divided government is a way to get things done."

Next up: Frank Newport, Editor in Chief of The Gallup Poll; Bill Burton, co-founder of Priorities USA and former Deputy White House Press Secretary for President Obama; Terry Nelson, Republican Strategist and Political Director of the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign; and Mark Mellman, President and Chief Executive Officer of The Mellman Group and chief pollster for the 2004 John Kerry campaign.  At a time when the Republican primary contest remains a rollercoaster ride, this conversation yielded fascinating analysis of the fast-evolving race and how the eventual nominee will stack up against President Obama.

Newport saw a glimmer of hope in the president’s approval rating of 44 percent, which has been trending up since it hit a low of 38 in October 2011 – not as dismal as Jimmy Carter’s and George H. W. Bush’s figures, which in the year where they sought reelection got down to the 20s.  It would be most favorable for Obama if his number would reach the 50 range, higher than George W. Bush’s Gallup rating of 48 percent prior to reelection.

Mellman and Nelson seemed to agree that the Republican strategy – and specifically Romney and Gingrich’s “ideological frame” against Obama – may be effective in the primaries but would ultimately work against them in the general election.  Making “moderate” a dirty word, as Mellman put it, and waging their campaign on the economy, as Nelson pointed out, would backfire if the economic situation improves in the coming months. In other words, the race is as wide open as ever and both major parties are scarily vulnerable to events well beyond their control.

So who will win the GOP nomination? Burton said that Romney releasing his tax returns on a day when the president was proposing fairness in taxes was a sign that he is not ready for prime time.  Meanwhile, making news, Nelson called Gingrich a problem candidate for the GOP, suggesting that Gingrich is unlikely to ultimately win the nomination. And yet, Newport said, he believes the general election will be competitive no matter what – meaning no easy win for Obama, even if he’s facing off against a candidate with Gingrich’s baggage.

Representative Paul Ryan [R-WI] Hit the state next, and immediately focused on the economy, citing the urgent need for reforms to rein in the national debt. He dismissed Obama outright saying he will never make the needed fixes. Ryan believes a “bipartisan consensus” on spending cuts is beginning to emerge, but that a new president and senate are needed for any progress to be made. Representative John Dingell [D-MI], who is known for his Detroit connections, focused on trade issues – not surprising given the impact free trade has had on Detroit’s Big Three and organized labor.

Congressman Joe Courtney [D-CT] closed the show, applauding Obama’s education efforts and the State of the Union’s focus on reform. Atlantic editor James Bennet pressed Courtney for details, asking what mechanisms government can use to hold academic institutions accountable.

As the members departed, Brownstein took the mic to look ahead and predict a turbulent political season in the coming months, leading all the way through the 2012 elections. After the ascendancy and tearing down of Herman Cain; the constantly shifting GOP frontrunner status; and the fierce partisanship of Iowa, New Hampshire, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, it is bit unsettling to learn that an analyst with Brownstein’s chops thinks the race will only get messier from here.

Watch video footage of the program below:


A complete transcript of the Briefing can be accessed hereMembers of the in-person and online audiences joined the conversation on Twitter via #SOTUDebrief.

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