A little over halfway through President Obama’s State of the Union address last night, Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington started clapping tentatively.
Obama was inviting the GOP to come to the table with its ideas on health care. “Tell America what you’d do differently,” Obama said. “Let’s see if the numbers add up.”
As Herrera Beutler began to clap wholeheartedly, Obama violently turned direction, prompting a roar of approval from the other side of the room.
“But let’s not have another forty-something votes to repeal a law that’s already helped millions of Americans,” Obama said, mocking Republicans for their attempts to turn back his signature legislative accomplishment.
Just as suddenly as Obama had changed tack, Herrera Beutler put her hands down, her eyes racing around the room and chagrin covering her face.
It was that kind of night.
Unlike some of his major speeches, especially his second inaugural, Obama didn’t relentlessly outline a liberal vision, putting forward a laundry list of small-bore proposals.
And he punctuated his rhetoric with uncharacteristicly gracious overtures to Republicans in the room.
The one that resonated most deeply with the loyal opposition was his reference to John Boehner’s ascension from “the son of a bar keep to the Speaker of the House” – the kind of sentiment that might have prompted a tear or two from the Ohio Republican, who instead just grinned sheepishly.
Obama’s core message, though – that he would go over Congress’ head if he needed to – was a deeply antagonistic one.
“The tone was conciliatory, the substance was belligerent and arrogant,” California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher told me. “Here’s a man basically coming here to say, do it my way or I’m going to do it on my own,” he added, calling it “one of the most arrogant speeches I’ve ever heard a president give.”
“He says we’re going to work together as Congress, and then he comes and says unilaterally, I will do this,” added Rep. Ted Yoho.
Senator Rob Portman of Ohio called it an “ambivalent speech.”
“Part of it was conciliatory, part of it was throwing out some red meat that wasn’t going anywhere,” he said.
“Let’s see where else we can make progress together,” Obama said, before warning: “America does not stand still, and neither will I.”
Beyond the friendly overtures, there was also one major substantive one. Obama took a total pass on attacking Republicans on immigration.
In the weeks leading up to the address, the potential of a major broadside from Obama on the issue had deeply spooked Republicans – and was one of the reasons behind the forthcoming immigration “principles,” GOP officials said.
But the one, single paragraph in the speech on immigration was as toothless as could be. “I know that members of both parties in the House” want to “fix our broken immigration system,” Obama said.
That’s not to say the lawmakers in the seats were ready to let down their guard. “The question is whether this is just political,” one top-ranking GOP member told me, trying to think of what Obama might be up to.
You might have expected liberals to have wanted more. But Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, perhaps the most cunning amnesty proponent in Congress, seemed quite pleased. “He’s been very careful, as he should be. He’s handling it just right,” he said.
On energy, Obama gave a nod to drilling and energy production, just before he took a hard left turn on climate change.
He offered promising rhetoric on streamlining regulations, but was undercut by a total lack of credibility on the topic.
On tax reform, Obama made a big pitch for what is a top GOP priority. But even as he was doing it, he appeared to change his stance on whether it will be revenue neutral. “Unfortunately he backpedaled from his position of revenue neutrality,” said Portman.
As he was pushing Obamacare through Congress, the president famously mocked Bill Clinton’s use of targeted executive actions, telling them he hadn’t been sent to the White House to do “school uniforms.”
In year six of his presidency, with a low approval rating, basically no chance of retaking the House, and the public increasingly taking notice of the legal limits of his authority, school uniforms – or, in last night’s speech, MyRA – may be all he has left.
Perhaps the best explanation for Obama’s Jekyll and Hyde routine is that he’s not quite ready to admit it yet.