State of the Union addresses are traditionally laundry lists of policy proposals. President Barack Obama’s this week started that way, but it ended as the most emotional speech before a joint session of Congress in modern memory.
The theatrics of the event also introduced a new approach to framing the public debate that could yield unexpected victories for the president in the next year or two.
Obama made liberal use of what in Washington are sometimes called “Skutniks.”
This is a reference to Lenny Skutnik, a government employee who in 1982 dove into the icy waters to rescue passengers of an Air Florida flight that crashed into the Potomac River shortly after takeoff from Washington’s National Airport.
Two weeks later, President Ronald Reagan invited Skutnik to sit with the First Lady in the gallery of the House during his first State of the Union Address. A tradition was born.
Skutniks are usually sprinkled throughout the State of the Union. This time, Obama kept his in reserve until the end. This made for a powerful coda that mobilized several of the honored guests on behalf of the president’s agenda without seeming too political or sacrificing any of the emotional punch.
“If you want to vote no, that’s your choice,” the president said of his measure to reduce gun violence. “But these proposals deserve a vote, because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun.”
Obama went on to describe the shooting death, only a mile from his home in Chicago, of Hadiya Pendleton, who just three weeks before performed as a drum majorette in his inaugural parade. The president pointed to Hadiya’s parents in the gallery and said, “They deserve a vote.”
Then, as he acknowledged former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, herself a survivor of a shooting, and the families of other shooting victims, “they deserve a vote” became a powerful refrain, which he recited seven more times to rising applause and tears.
When the president, after saluting a nurse who saved children during Hurricane Sandy, got to a North Miami woman named Desiline Victor, the power of the voting idea came into sharper focus. The president explained how “a throng of people stayed in line” to support the 102-year-old woman as she braved a long wait to vote on Election Day and he described the cheers that erupted when she finally put on a sticker that read: “I voted.”
The grandeur of the democratic franchise — the foundation of our system — could be felt in the congressional chamber.
Some analysts said after the speech that the president lowered the bar on gun-safety legislation by stressing only the need for a vote, not passage of a bill.
That criticism ignores that the traditional way to block legislation in Washington is to prevent it from coming up for a vote. This technique allows opponents the satisfaction of successful obstruction without the accountability that comes from a recorded vote.
No vote means not having to worry about negative television ads in the next election for opposing a proposal popular with the public.
Until now, fighting filibusters in the Senate and obstructionist tactics in the Republican-controlled House has been, as they say in Washington, a heavy lift. The assumption has always been that these are “process questions” that bore the public.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to demand filibuster reform when he had the chance last month, and few people outside Washington noticed. Former senator Chuck Hagel, the president’s nominee to be Secretary of Defense, will now face a Senate filibuster, and that’s unlikely to be an issue in the heartland.
Hagel would be the first unpromoted enlisted man to head the Pentagon. If he’s blocked, Obama should rouse audiences of retired enlisted men with the message: “You deserve a vote.”
If voting is framed as a right — as a service that the public “deserves” — the politics of at least a few issues can change in subtle but significant ways.
There’s a big difference between aridly advocating filibuster reform and passionately demanding that members of Congress do what they are paid to do — vote.
Suddenly, when the bright-eyed volunteers from Obama’s new grassroots advocacy group, Organizing for Action, go door to door, their arguments no longer need to be about the confusing and often alienating details of legislation.
These thousands of door knockers (drawn from an email list of 16 million) don’t have to, say, defend an assault-weapons ban to voters who don’t support it or explain why increased border security without a path to citizenship for undocumented workers isn’t an answer to the immigration problem.
They can just ask voters to join them in supporting “a simple vote,” as Obama said.
The administration hopes this common-sense appeal to basic fairness can be applied not just to guns, but to other measures that are bottled up.
This approach provides a unifying theme for the many different policy proposals that the president advanced in his speech. He is telling the Republicans that if they want to reject ideas that the majority of the country supports, they must go on record as doing so.
Now he needs to maintain the pressure and argue that anything short of a roll-call vote violates lawmakers’ oaths to represent the people who elected them.
“They deserve a vote” might not work. It’s much easier to stop something in Washington than to start it.
But casting his program as a struggle for democracy was a smart way for the president to begin his second term.
(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak, Pool