The State of the Union, like big sporting events, tends to produce its own sub-themes based on the peripherals of the event. One such sideshow is the guest lists from the White House and its opposition for the gallery, which tip the hands of both sides in their framing of national issues. The Obama guest list provides a number of proxies for the variety of issues that the President seeks to highlight in his annual address to the joint session of Congress:
An immigrant brought illegally to the United States as a child, General Motors CEO Mary Barra, the governor of Kentucky, and the mayor of San Francisco will be among President Obama’s guests at Tuesday night’s State of the Union.
The White House announced 11 more guests Tuesday who will sit with first lady Michelle Obama and other officials in the presidential box.
They join six other invitees announced Monday, including two survivors of the Boston Marathon bombings and openly gay basketball player Jason Collins.
There will also be an Air Force veteran who has $90,000 in student debt while being a single mom to a teenager, the teacher who talked a student out of a shooting spree in Georgia, and a previously-uninsured physician’s assistant who got coverage under ObamaCare. That’s a pretty wide policy spread, and not terribly focused on what the White House claims as its central focus tonight, income inequality. In fact, it’s a little amusing to see an NBA multimillionaire in the box as Obama’s guest as he talks about the disparity between the rich and the poor.
On the other side, Republicans are making their point about tonight’s opposition message very clear:
GOP lawmakers are bringing guests to President Barack Obama’s address Tuesday night who are negatively affected by the health care law – from consumers who’ve seen their insurance plans cancelled to business owners who are beleaguered by new guidelines under the Affordable Care Act.
At least a dozen GOP lawmakers are bringing Obamacare plus-ones to the State of the Union in a coordinated effort, according to information provided by the House Republican Conference and individual offices.
“It’s putting a face to the problem,” said Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), who is bringing Diane Hunter, a president and CEO of Interim Health Care, a home health agency in his district. “So often times, people in Washington, D.C., don’t seem to understand that these policies are having a real, dramatic effect on small businesses.”
Using State of the Union guests to make a political point is nothing new. But the president’s annual address gives an especially bright spotlight for Republicans to wage yet another political assault on the health care law – particularly in an election year in which Obamacare is expected to play a major role.
The Republicans are aggressively promoting their anti-Obamacare guests in the media and holding events to put the focus on the health care law. Just hours before the address, a handful of House GOP lawmakers and their Obamacare-centric guests will hold a press conference in conjunction with the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee.
This is exactly where Republicans need to focus. They need a coherent, fact-based, and personal response that underscores the overreach and incompetence of the Obama administration on their first comprehensive program to address inequality — ObamaCare. It would help if they could pull together a united response with that kind of focus, too, but that’s where the effort broke down:
The new White House mantra is that Barack Obama, forever thwarted by an obstreperous Congress, will use “his pen and his phone” to push the action in 2014. But at least for one night, Obama can still draw on the power of the pulpit. Tuesday’s State of the Union will showcase all the pomp a presidency can muster: the House chamber filled with dignitaries, the seesaw of applause, a broadcast audience numbering in the tens of millions. The privilege is a perk of the office.
But Congress has found a way to intrude even on this. Obama’s address will be followed by no fewer than three Republican rebuttals, which will (spoiler alert) pan the speech with varying degrees of contempt. These responses—not to mention the 530 or so separate email blasts that will begin flooding in-boxes before Obama even finishes speaking—are meant to siphon attention on the one night the President is supposed to have it in full.
At the same time, however, the triple rebuttal lays bare the challenges facing a fractured party. After consecutive losses to Obama and the disastrous government shutdown, the GOP‘s factions are increasingly divided over tactics and message. The practice of responding to the sitting President dates back decades for both parties, but it wasn’t until the Obama era that Republican factions began jostling for post-presidential airtime. Instead of advancing the party’s ideas, the competing speeches wind up stepping on them.
I tend to agree. Ironically, ObamaCare is the one issue that galvanizes and unites Republicans and conservatives, on the overall goal of repeal if not necessarily on short-term tactics. If anything should have produced a single, coordinated response from the various factions on the Right, it’s a SOTU response focused on ObamaCare. The impact from one would still not have broken free of the shadow of pageantry and pomp from the SOTU itself, but at least it would have provided a single rally point for Obama’s opposition. Instead, we’ll probably get debate over which response was the least weak in the aftermath of the evening.
The damage will be minimal, though, because no one recalls SOTU speeches except through searches to see how baldly a President ignored his own promises, let alone responses. Let’s focus on the real drama tonight … SOTU dating.