The Republican exodus began before President Obama had even finished.
As soon as the president gave his closing assessment Tuesday night on the state of the union—unsurprisingly, that it’s “strong”—in his final such address to Congress, the GOP side of the House chamber got up to leave.
They’d had enough, it seemed, with the era of Obama, and had no interest in hearing anything more. But he wasn’t quite finished: He still needed to deliver the customary “God bless the United States of America.” By the time he’d said it, though, half the GOP had already turned their backs on him—perhaps so they could head for the waiting TV cameras. It was a symbolic culmination to an optimistic, forward-looking speech that garnered only tepid bipartisan support.
Obama struck a hopeful tone, emphasizing that change—while unsettling—can be positive. Though the country had been through big changes before, America rose to the challenge, overcoming the fear to “slam the brakes.
“We made change work for us, always extending America’s promise outward, to the next frontier, to more and more people,” he said. “And because we did—because we saw opportunity where others saw only peril—we emerged stronger and better than before.”
That optimism, White House communications director Jen Psaki told reporters Tuesday, comes in the face of Republican claims that the country is quickly headed for the gutter.
Obama is concerned, she said, “by the tone of the political debate, that many Republicans ... running for president have struck a tone of doom and gloom, [claiming] the terrible situation that our country is in. We could not disagree with that more. The president could not be more optimistic about the potential that we have.”
That potential, though, didn’t register with Republicans. The few areas of support from both Democrats—who enthusiastically hailed every presidential applause line—and the more skeptical GOP were unsurprising. Nods to the service of American troops and veterans garnered ringing applause from all sides of the chamber, as did Obama’s assertion that “priority number one is protecting the American people and going after terrorist networks.”
Republicans stayed silent for most of the address, even when Obama thanked Speaker Paul Ryan and the rest of the leadership for their work to pass a budget at the end of last year, or when he mentioned criminal-justice reform, a rare spot of bipartisanship. There was one fervent Obama supporter in the GOP ring, though, who stood and clapped in time with Democrats on the other side of the chamber: Rep. Jared Polis, a liberal Colorado Democrat who strategically positioned himself amid the sea of Republicans for maximum GOP annoyance.
But Republicans showed a sense of humor, too. In a show of disapproval of Obama’s penchant for executive actions—including his latest, a package of gun-control measures unveiled last week—Republicans clapped heartily when Obama said he couldn’t change the country’s politics “on my own.”