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Sunday, December 4, 2016

Forget the State of the Union. Let’s focus on the state of our political leaders, who can’t stop getting on each other’s last nerve.

Both President Obama’s address and Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst’s response on behalf of the Republican Party made them seem like partners who once yearned for approval from one another but now recognize it won’t happen. Cue the condescension and defiance.

Ernst, in the Senate for all of two weeks, treated Obama as a bit player instead of a chief executive who decisively won two national elections and can veto anything Congress sends him. “It’s important to hear different points of view in this great country. We appreciate the president sharing his,” she said.

Obama managed to talk for an hour without once acknowledging that Republicans scored sweeping coast-to-coast victories last fall and now have total control of Congress. He did squeeze in a few tweaks, veto threats and pointed ad libs. When he said he had run his last campaign and Republicans started to applaud, he shot back, “I know, because I won both of them.”

House Speaker John Boehner came back the next morning with the perfect riposte to the whole evening. He disclosed that a foreign head of state would also address a joint session of Congress — just like Obama! — in three weeks.

How provocative was this move? Let us count the ways. There was the timing, hours after Obama spoke. There was the venue, a rare joint session. There was the guest, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who disapproves of White House participation in talks to curtail Iran’s nuclear capacities, and wants Obama to take a tougher approach. “Iran is your enemy!” he told Obama. On CBS.

Beyond all that, the administration says Boehner breached protocol. Such invitations are customarily leader to leader. Leader of Congress to leader of a nation is highly unorthodox. “I don’t believe I’m poking anyone in the eye,” Boehner said. Congress, he said, “can make this decision on its own.”

Just to clarify, the Republican majority that is suing Obama for allegedly overreaching his constitutional powers is now fighting overreach with overreach.

If this period in Beltway history had a theme song, it would be Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” But should liberals care?

In the final quarter of his presidency, after what he described as “a breakthrough year” for America, Obama is talking like a vindicated man. The union he leads, in his words, boasts “a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production … a stock market that has doubled, and health care inflation at its lowest rate in 50 years.” Unemployment is at 5.6 percent – “lower than it was before the financial crisis.”

The man is entitled to a victory lap. At last.

Republicans — the new kings and queens of Capitol Hill — are entitled to feel a bit miffed. The president didn’t recognize their new power, just rubbed their noses in his. He reiterated on the largest stage possible that he will veto any dilution of what he’s achieved on health, financial reform, immigration and climate change. The climate language was particularly stark. “I will not let this Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts,” he said. Nope, no kumbayah vibes there.

Obama and the GOP do like to talk about their shared enthusiasm for trade deals and tax reform. There are some complications, however. One is what The Wall Street Journal calls an “agenda gap.” The most urgent priorities for voters are jobs, fighting Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria, reducing the federal deficit and border security. Trade, tax reform and the Keystone XL pipeline are way down the list. Those items are sold as job creators by one or both parties, but the message isn’t getting through.

Pesky details are another problem, particularly on the tax front. Ernst made it sound simple — “let’s iron out loopholes to lower rates.” But while there is broad support to close loopholes and reduce corporate rates, Obama also is proposing higher taxes on banks and the wealthy. He would use the money to rebuild infrastructure and for initiatives such as free community college, expanded childcare and earned-income tax credits, and a new credit for two-earner families. Or, as Boehner calls them, “fantasyland proposals.”

And that’s the third problem. It’s obvious from the nonstop tweaks, slights and friction that détente will be difficult, even on issues where there is ostensibly common ground.

I would like to see those tax and trade agreements come to fruition in some mutually satisfactory way, both on the merits and for the sake of showing Washington can work. But I also hope we will continue hearing from the feisty, high-octane Obama who gave that State of the Union address. He has jumpstarted a vigorous debate over the future of the country that we need as we head into 2016.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo: President Barack Obama arrives to deliver the State of the Union address on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Pool/TNS)