For Obama, a polite State of the Union

Democrats give the president a shout-out. But there were plenty of yawns in the chamber, too.
Democrats give the president a shout-out. But there were plenty of yawns in the chamber, too. (Melina Mara/the Washington Post)
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By Dana Milbank
Thursday, January 28, 2010

It was as cold as a meat locker in the House chamber Wednesday night as lawmakers filed in to hear President Obama''s State of the Union address. Several lawmakers donned overcoats. Two lawmakers wrapped themselves in blankets.

If the goal was to cool the partisan tempers that have split Washington and the nation for the past year, it was a success. Obama's speech was long, detailed and mostly conciliatory, and the reaction was bipartisan and tepid.

Obama spoke of Americans who "give back to their country." Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) yawned.

Obama spoke of the need to get beyond "silly arguments." Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) yawned.

Obama spoke of human rights in Iran. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) yawned.

Obama spoke about arms control. Christina Romer, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, yawned.

Obama spoke about a jobs bill. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer elbowed his colleague Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had fallen asleep.

There was no shout of "You lie!" The one shout heard above all others from the Republican side came from Rep. Louie Gohmert (Tex.), after Obama exhorted the lawmakers to "show the American people that we can do it together."

"There we go!" Gohmert cried, getting to his feet to applaud the call to bipartisanship. Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), head of the House GOP caucus, joined Gohmert's standing ovation.

It would be naive to expect the good manners to last, but at the very least, lawmakers demonstrated that, if they worked really hard at it, they still had the ability to behave themselves.

Last fall, of course, an Obama address to a similar joint session of Congress was hijacked by the cry of a backbencher on the Republican side, Rep. Joe "You Lie!" Wilson of South Carolina.

Instead of earning disgrace for that, Wilson became a celebrity on the right, and his campaign fundraising swelled. The reaction caused others to contemplate the value of outbursts. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) voiced what others were surely wondering: "After he raised a few million dollars off of it, I was thinking, 'Why didn't I say that?' "

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