By Russell Berman - 01/25/12 04:59 AM EST
Lawmakers were expecting a tongue-lashing from President Obama, and when it came on Tuesday night, they politely took their beating.
The president took advantage of Congress’s deep unpopularity, using his State of the Union address to hector lawmakers on the gridlock that has frozen Washington and angered the public.
“The divide between this city and the rest of the country… seems to get worse every year,” Obama told the lawmakers sitting before him.
Lawmakers leapt to their feet when Obama praised American soldiers and lauded the nation’s spirit and resilience. Yet when the president told Congress that most Americans expected “nothing will get done this year,” there were only knowing chuckles. And when Obama called the debt ceiling debate that roiled Washington last summer a “fiasco,” he was greeted with stony silence.
Democrats lapped up most of Obama’s policy proposals, which Republicans greeted with chagrin.
“It was a very divided speech, trying to divide the country instead of unite the country,” the third-ranking House Republican, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), told The Hill afterward.
For members who came into the election-year speech with minimal expectations, the president was only half the attraction. The other half was Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Democrat severely wounded in a shooting a year ago who was making her final appearance in the House chamber as a member of Congress.
Giffords, who will submit her resignation on Wednesday, sat in the front row directly to Obama’s right; she was flanked by Reps. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and surrounded by her closest friends in Congress, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.
Lawmakers flocked to Giffords as they did in her only other Capitol appearance since her shooting, when she traveled to Washington to cast a vote to raise the debt ceiling in August. Vice President Biden stepped down from his seat behind the lecturn to embrace her, and Obama greeted her with a big, gentle hug and kiss as he made his way through the aisle. A staunch conservative, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), brought Giffords a package of candy moments before the speech began.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also made their way over to Giffords’ corner to embrace her. The congresswoman could not clap because she has limited use of her right arm, but Flake and Grijalva helped her to stand during major applause lines of Obama’s address.
With the president striking a populist chord throughout the speech, there were few moments when both parties in the chamber stood as one to applaud. Republicans seemed to roll their eyes at Obama’s claim to have approved fewer regulations than President George W. Bush, and they sat on their hands when the president proposed to use war savings to increase domestic spending and pay down the deficit.
One notable exception was during the president’s section on energy. Obama’s call for an “all-of-the-above” strategy drew loud applause from Republicans and a wide smile from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who sat stone-faced for long sections of the president’s speech. The “all-of-the-above” energy platform was a prominent tenet of Sen. John McCain’s campaign against Obama in 2008.
This year’s address was the second to feature bipartisan seating arrangements, even if it did not lead to more bipartisan approval. Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), facing a tough re-election fight, sat next to his Massachusetts colleague, Sen. John Kerry (D), who was sporting two black eyes from a recent hockey mishap. As during the president’s jobs speech to Congress in September, Brown was a rare Republican who applauded the president frequently, including his pledge to “fight obstruction with action … and oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place.”
But for the most part, Republicans reacted coolly to Obama, and when the speech ended, they tossed the blame for Washington’s failures right back at him.
“When the president referred implicitly if not explicitly to gridlock and to dysfunction in Washington, he too must take his share of responsibility for that,” freshman Rep. Nan Hayworth (R-N.Y.) said. “He has chosen to emphasize areas that he knows very well Republicans in Congress will not find easy to join him in.”