Prepared for President Obama to give a "centrist" State of the Union address to prove he can work with intransigent Republicans, I was pleasantly surprised. They may be small things, but a few points stood out. I was happy he pledged that "we simply cannot afford a permanent extension of the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans," adding "Before we take money away from our schools, or scholarships away from our students, we should ask millionaires to give up their tax break." I just hope he fights to end those tax cuts in 2012 even though he didn't in 2010. I'm glad Obama promised to cut taxpayer subsidies for oil companies (even though almost no one clapped.)
Sadly, it took a little bit of courage to speak with compassion about the children of illegal immigrants or to say "American Muslims are part of our family." I liked a lot of what he said about investment in education, transportation and infrastructure, but I have no idea how that squares with his promise to freeze domestic spending for five years.
The president was lucky to have not one but two GOP rebuttals, and they were equally strange and dishonest. Rep. Paul Ryan railed against the deficit without proposing even one specific cut. He didn't talk about his own infamous "Roadmap," maybe because most analysts have called it a budget buster, even though it essentially replaces Social Security and Medicare with vouchers. The Congressional Budget Office estimates Ryan's plan wouldn't balance the budget until 2063, and would add $62 trillion to the debt by then. Citizens for Tax Justice said Ryan's Roadmap raises taxes on 9 out of 10 taxpayers and while slashing them for the wealthiest.
Wisely, Ryan talked about none of that. He promised to repeal "Obamacare" and replace it with "fiscally responsible patient-centered reform," but didn't say word one about what it would entail. Most dishonestly, Ryan said Democrats had overspent "to the point where the president is now urging Congress to increase the debt limit," ignoring the fact that Congress raised it seven times under President Bush. That's your new chair of the House Budget Committee. (Update: Somehow I missed the best line in Ryan's rebuttal, in which he worries we're headed toward "a future in which we will transform our social safety net into a hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency." I want to ask the 14.5 million unemployed Americans, and the millions more who are underemployed, how they're enjoying their hammocks. Leave it to a Republican to come up with such vivid metaphors of leisure to talk about suffering. It's the only way they can relate.)
Tea Party leader Michele Bachmann followed Ryan, and CNN chose to broadcast her talk while other networks didn't. Bachmann has actually proposed budget cuts – eradicating the Department of Education and saving money (?) by repealing the Dodd-Frank Financial Regulation act. But she didn't talk specifics in her SOTU rebuttal, either. Luckily, she didn't get into American history, after her disastrous Iowa speech sugarcoating slavery and otherwise distorting the American past. (Note to Bachmann: George Jefferson was definitely not one of the founders.) She flashed Perot-style charts blaming rising unemployment solely on Obama, and ranted about 16,500 new IRS agents supposedly hired to enforce Obamacare (Factcheck.org has already debunked that myth).
Bachmann ended with a shot of soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima (which she mispronounced) and compared it to Americans fighting the debt crisis. "We will proclaim liberty throughout the land," she concluded. "We the people will never give up." Unfortunately, she was looking at the wrong camera for the entire speech, so she always seemed to be looking over the viewer's left shoulder (in my case, at my dog Sadie.) It was a little creepy.
Throughout his career, Barack Obama has benefited from having lame opponents, and that trend is clearly continuing thanks to the new leadership of the GOP. He looked presidential; Ryan and Bachmann looked small and lost. The worst response was from GOP Rep. Paul Broun, the one who was afraid Democrats wanted to play "kissy-kissy" by sharing seats during the SOTU. He skipped the address and spent it on Twitter, where he declared, "Mr. President, you don’t believe in the Constitution. You believe in socialism." That's probably better than Rep. Joe Wilson interrupting an Obama address to the House by screaming "You lie," but not by much.