Seldom have I watched the president’s annual speech to the joint session of Congress with anticipation that had so little to do with the contents of the address itself.
By now we surely know that – aside from the occasional brandishing of a veto pen or the periodic pledge to rein in government – these speeches are seldom memorable.
But my expectations kicked up a bit in the wake of the state of collective shock that followed the shootings in Tucson. In general terms, politicians are not an introspective bunch until they lose an election. There is something about putting yourself out there for a voting booth rejection that requires an outsized sense of self.
So when lawmakers began scrambling for symbols to acknowledge how vulnerable they were feeling after Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., was shot, they reached for lapel ribbons and statements of condolence. Then they reached for each other.
That’s what I was watching for during the State of the Union speech. Many had dismissed “date night,” as it came to be known, as a bipartisan stunt. But when it played out in the House chambers, we ended up with something we’d never seen before.
Two moments stick in my mind. President Obama announced his intention to revive the DREAM Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for U.S. born children of illegal immigrants. Both Democrats and Republicans applauded. It’s useful to recall that Republicans hated the DREAM Act and made sure it did not become law. But this night, they were polite.
I was similarly struck watching Democrats applaud the president’s decision to describe corporate tax reform as leveling the playing field – an argument more frequently heard in civil rights debates than tax break debates.
But I think it’s about more than symbolism when politicians play nice. Speeches are great tent poles, but in my experience trolling the halls of state houses, city halls, Congress and the White House, the real work gets done in hallways and hideaway offices and cloakrooms. One of the reasons I like to watch members of Congress go to the floor to vote is to observe the way they interact with one another in a place when staff is not positioned over their shoulders.
These exchanges are not as dramatic as cable shouting matches – or even as NewsHour face-offs. Nor are the settings as majestic as the floor of the House of Representatives. But that’s how work actually gets done.
President Obama did his job Tuesday night. “We do big things,” he said. It’s hard not to applaud that line. But watching Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and John Kerry, D-Mass. – both who recently imagined giving that speech themselves – sit side by side to listen was all the uplift I needed.
It doesn’t mean that everything in Washington will change overnight – especially when honest policy differences remain so hard and fast. But it does increase the chances that – when one comes face to face with one’s opponent – it becomes more difficult to simply turn away.
Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the Washington Week website, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.