State Of The Union De-Brief: Cornyn, Becerra, Klobuchar, and Pfeiffer On Obama's Speech

Was it a tack to the right? A re-insistence on health care reform? A play for bipartisanship?

A State of the Union address depends largely on how you look at it and who you're talking to, and some disparate voices came together to discuss it this morning for a panel put on by National Journal and The Atlantic, those voices belonging to: National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (R-TX), House Democratic Caucus Vice Chair Xavier Becerra (D-CA), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer.

So, without further ado, here are four ways of looking at the State of the Union.

Cornyn, a second-term Texas Republican, has a job that carries with it a lot of opportunity over the next year: he's charged with winning Senate races for the Republican Party. And things seem to be going pretty well. His party's blanket opposition to the president's agenda has worked so far, and Cornyn criticized Obama this morning as much as the speech itself.

"It's not just what people say, it's what people do," Cornyn said when asked about Obama's appeals to GOP sensibilities.

But he did agree with the president's support for nuclear power, and offered some hope that energy reforms--though not cap-and-trade--could pass the Senate in 2010.

"On the energy front...that was fairly encouraging, embracing nuclear power," Cornyn said, positing that he thinks there's "a sweet spot we might be able to get to on the energy front."

On NRSC strategy for 2010: "It's about policy, and the president's policies have proven unpopular."

Becerra represents an overwhelmingly pro-Obama (to the tune of 80 percent in 2008), liberal district in downtown Los Angeles. He serves as vice chair of the Democratic Caucus, which, as a member of the Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus as well, places him at the intersection of Democratic caucus leadership and its sometimes discontent, liberal wing, which has vehemently opposed the Senate health care bill.

He liked what he saw from Obama: "I would use the president's own words: I hoped he would be audacious, and he was," Becerra said.

And he stood by the notion that House Democrats have done their part to pass the president's agenda, while it's been the Senate that's dragged its feet, and Becerra disputed the notion Democrats are "running for the hills" after the Massachusetts Senate race.

"I don't think [Obama] was making reference to House Democrats running for the hills. Maybe he was making reference to other Democrats, but they weren't in the House," Becerra said.

He said Obama, despite political difficulties, must stick to the ambitious agenda he brought into the White House last year.

"I believe the president is going to move forward that ambitious agenda. He's going to pivot a bit, he's going to try to accommodate, he's going to try to seek out bipartisan support, but the moment he decides to play small ball is the moment I think he loses a lot of American support," Becerra said.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar came into the upper chamber in the 2006 on the Democratic-Farmer-Labor ticket in her home state of Minnesota. Having helped usher in the new Democratic majority, she isn't as liberal as some of her Senate Democratic colleagues; she ran on a platform of middle-class tax relief and raising the minimum wage (plus associating her opponent with President Bush).

Klobuchar liked the speech too, but smarted a bit from one line: "I had mixed feelings about when he called the Senate out for not passing the deficit commission," said Klobuchar, who supported the bill, noting that a majority of the Senate had actually voted for it.

The recently defeated plan to create a commission on reducing the deficit--most likely through a mix of tax increases and spending cuts, whose recommendations would be delivered to Congress regularly--has sparked accusations of blind partisanship, as it was opposed by some Republicans who previously supported the concept. The vote felt "political," Klobuchar said.

But: "He somehow had a way for each major initiative to make everyone stand up," Klobuchar said, posing this as a hopeful sign for big agenda items.

Dan Pfeiffer is the White House's top communications specialist; having just come off a big night--the biggest night of the year--for the White House communications operation, he appeared simultaneously drained and energized. Pfeiffer talked about lessons from the first year in office, and from the recent Senate race in Massachusetts.

"No question that there is an economic anger and anxiety that exists among middle class voters," Pfeiffer said. The race in Massachusetts, according to Pfeiffer, didn't reveal anything new.

"All the underlying things...were things we knew beforehand," he said, adding that it would "foolish" for anyone to think that Massachusetts indicates a resurgence of the GOP brand.

On the message of the State of the Union, Pfeiffer said it's not as political as the media makes it out to be--that it's simply an explanation of where the country needs to go.

"It's important to understand how the president views these speeches, especially the joint sessions, inaugurations, ones where you're speaking to a large national audience...the audience is the American people who are watching, and no one--the American people don't think, this is a reset, you know, is he tacking left, is he tacking right, is he gonna be centrist, is he gonna be contrite Clinton or defiant Reagan or all the things you heard on cable all day," Pfeiffer said.

"It was not a reset, it was a  robust explanation of where we are, what we've done, where we need to go."