President Obama’s jobs speech Thursday night marked the president’s fifth time delivering an address to a joint session of Congress.
Such speeches are rare occasions during which the president makes his case before an audience of critics and allies, Democrat and Republican alike, in both the House and the Senate.
That makes any presidential address to a joint session a moment particularly ripe with political meaning, where even the smallest gestures made by lawmakers or the president can be telling.
Here are some of our observations from within the House chamber during Obama’s speech Thursday night.
In contrast to Obama’s last address to a joint session — his January 2011 State of the Union — Thursday’s jobs speech saw few lawmakers sit with members from across the aisle. Among the bipartisan couples we saw sitting together on Thursday: Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) sat together with Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.); Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) sat alongside his fellow debt supercommittee members Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Fred Upton (R-Mich.); and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) sat with Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). Two brothers also sat together — Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.).
In what may (or may not) have been a gesture of bipartisanship, several Democratic women wore red suits, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), and Reps. Jackie Speier (Calif.), Louise Slaughter (N.Y.) and Judy Chu (Calif.).
Expected (and unexpected) guests
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who famously shouted “You lie!” during Obama’s 2009 address on health care reform, was present in the chamber Thursday night; he was seated in the fifth row from the front on the Republican side of the chamber, next to freshman Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.). (Unlike two years ago, Wilson did not interrupt Obama’s speech on Thursday.) Wilson had been hospitalized late last month with a viral infection.
Also present was former Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.), who resigned from Congress last month amid allegations that he had initiated an “unwanted sexual encounter” with an 18-year-old woman. Sitting to Wu’s right on Thursday night was a young girl; the two sat in the third row from the back on the Democratic side of the chamber. Other members largely kept their distance from the disgraced lawmaker, and the seats on either side of Wu and his guest remained empty until just before Obama’s speech.
Pages’ final chapter
Thursday marked the first joint session of Congress since Pelosi and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced last month that the House Page Program was coming to an end. Senate pages were present in the chamber Thursday, but House pages — who typically stand in the back of the room and run errands for lawmakers — were nowhere to be found.
The coveted aisle seats
During any joint session, the aisle seats are often the most coveted because they give lawmakers their best chance to mingle with administration officials — including the president and vice president — as they enter the chamber. Obama’s jobs speech was no different, and some members long known for reserving aisle seats during joint sessions — Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Al Green (D-Texas) among them — again did so Thursday night. Other members who grabbed aisle seats included Reps. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and Kathy Hochul (D-N.Y.).
During the speech
As Obama delivered his speech, most Democrats in the chamber were reading along with the text; at least one member, Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), appeared to be reading a newspaper.
House and Senate Republicans mostly sat and listened to the speech, although several — including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) and House Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) — were taking notes.
Only a few House Republicans clapped for Obama’s payroll tax line. Among them were Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.).
When Obama said that “we have to reform Medicare to strengthen it,” the line seemed to go over best with Republicans, not Democrats: The GOP side of the chamber applauded first, then most Democrats followed suit. House Democratic leaders including Pelosi, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Democratic Caucus Vice-Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.) and others stood and applauded; other Democrats, including Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn (S.C.) and Rep. Kathy Hochul (N.Y.), applauded but did not stand up.
Obama’s proclamation that “this isn’t class warfare” drew quick laughter from the Republican side of the chamber. But unlike during the 2009 health care address, the only outbursts from members this time around were expressions of support from some House Democrats.
After Obama declared toward the end of his speech that “every proposal will meet the urgent needs of our people and our communities,” a member on the Democratic side could be heard shouting out, “Absolutely.”
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