TOPICS > Politics

Butterflies, rainbows and midterm realities

bio-ifill
Co-Anchor & Managing Editor
BY Gwen Ifill  January 31, 2014 at 11:16 AM EDT
Lawmakers watch President Obama deliver his 5th State of the Union Address on Jan. 28, 2014.

Lawmakers watch President Obama deliver his 5th State of the Union Address on Jan. 28, 2014. Photo by Getty Images

The State of the Union speech gives Washington a chance to reacquaint itself with ritual. When else do we need to know the name of the House doorkeeper? What other extended opportunity do we get to study the body language of the president, the vice president and the speaker of the house — in a single screen shot?

For one night, we obsess over which Cabinet member stays away from the Capitol (to preserve the line of succession in event of calamity … it was Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz), count the number of Supreme Court justices in attendance (Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg greeted the president with a hug), and gauge the significance of the occupants of the first lady’s box.

But the most predictable ritual of the last several years has been watching lawmakers decide when to applaud, when to stand and applaud, or when to convey studied neutrality or disapproval as the president speaks. It is the visual illustration of a nation hopelessly divided.

This week’s address did not veer from that script. Although a few members crossed the aisle to sit together, mostly Democrats stood to applaud the president – while mostly Republicans sat on their hands. (There were rare exceptions. Everyone gets up to applaud wounded warriors and the first lady.)

But the day after the speech offered a different tone. House Republicans were signaling movement on immigration reform. The president was emphasizing small bore improvements in education, employment and a retirement savings incentive that mostly sidesteps partisan conflict.

And the language offered up by leaders in both parties had softened. For a moment, it was all butterflies and rainbows.

Instead of talking about the dangers of inequality that benefit the richest, the president talked about providing “ladders of opportunity.”

And Speaker John Boehner told reporters covering the House Republican retreat in Cambridge, Maryland that he wants his party to be seen as the “alternative” party, not the “opposition.”

This formulation caught my ear, because on the morning after the State of the Union speech, I heard Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio use exactly the same language in response to a question about the credibility problems Democrats and Republicans face.

“We should not aspire to be the opposition party, we should aspire to be an alternative,” he told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Wall Street Journal. “An alternative that explains to people how our principles of free enterprise and limited government can lead to upward mobility, equality of opportunity, the achievement of the American dream in a safe secure country.”

“I don’t want us to be the doomsday party that’s constantly telling people how bad things are and how the country is inevitably headed to decline.”

This would be a switch of strategy, at least for the tea party lawmakers the president mocked for voting unsuccessfully more than 40 times to repeal his health care plan.

But Boehner took the step of beginning his caucus retreat by sending a letter to Mr. Obama outlining four areas of potential agreement -– increasing natural gas production, beefing up skills training programs, prioritizing basic research and reforming workplace rules.

However, he took his incremental kumbaya only so far. “Listen, we know that the president’s policies are not working,” Boehner said. “That’s why we need to show the American people that the policies that we’re in favor of really will improve their lives.”

One can sense Democrats stepping back from the brink as well. The president has vowed to act without congressional support, but on the stump, he’s throwing only mild rhetorical salt in the wounds.

“I’m not going to stand still,” he told an audience at U.S. Steel in Pittsburgh. “So wherever I can take steps to expand opportunity for more families, regardless of what Congress does, that’s what I’m going to do.”

It takes only one glance at the polls to see why both sides are emphasizing the things they can get done rather than the things they can’t.

Just prior to the State of the Union speech, President Obama’s approval rating stood at 46 percent in a Washington Post poll, with only 37 percent saying that have a good or great deal of confidence in him to make the right decisions for the nation’s future.

It’s worse for Congress. Seventy-two percent of those polled say they have little or no confidence in Democrats; 80 percent say the same about Republicans.

With numbers like that, a few butterflies and rainbows can’t hurt, even if it means accentuating occasional rays of bipartisan hope. After all, voters get to turn these poll numbers into election outcomes within months.