By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 24, 2011; 10:07 PM
When President Obama stands in the House chamber Tuesday night to deliver his State of the Union address, many Republican and Democratic lawmakers will be sitting together. But will they cheer together?
In the aftermath of the Tucson shooting rampage that killed six people and critically wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), voices on and off Capitol Hill have called for less heated rhetoric and more bipartisan efforts in Congress. At the State of the Union, scores of members plan to scramble the usually partisan seating chart.
Yet the tableau won't look so bipartisan if only Democrats leap to their feet to applaud during Obama's speech.
"There's a phenomenon that has arisen of partisan standing ovations," said William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a founding member of the new centrist group No Labels. "The president says something and by prearrangement the members of his party stand and cheer while the members of the other party sit on their hands."
It's unsurprising when lawmakers endorse their own party's ideas, but Galston and his colleagues at No Labels - which was launched to combat "the tyranny of hyper-partisanship" - were more interested in studying when and why members on both sides of the aisle rise together to applaud.
So the group's staffers watched every State of the Union going back to 1978, and noted every bipartisan standing ovation - all 419 of them - to compile a "State of the Unity Meter" to spark discussion at viewing parties Tuesday night. They found that the rate of ovations has risen dramatically in recent years, and that no one has been better than Obama at bringing both parties to their feet.
First, Galston said the group tried "to distinguish between what I call 'Lenny Skutnik moments' and actual substantive statements" about issues.
Skutnik became famous in January 1982 for diving into the icy Potomac River and rescuing the victim of a plane crash. Two weeks later, Skutnik was sitting next to first lady Nancy Reagan in the House gallery when President Ronald Reagan paid tribute to his "heroism," prompting a bipartisan standing ovation.
Since then, "Skutnik" has been used as shorthand to describe similarly praiseworthy guests at the State of the Union. This year, Daniel Hernandez - the "hero intern" who came to Giffords's aid after she was shot - has been invited to sit with first lady Michelle Obama and will surely receive sustained applause.
Presidents also draw frequent ovations for praising the bravery of America's armed forces. In all, No Labels counted 120 "symbolic" ovations since 1978.
Such instances don't necessarily foreshadow an outburst of bipartisan policymaking. Yet if Obama announces his intention to pursue comprehensive reform of the tax code, and both Republicans and Democrats applaud, it could suggest that the ground is fertile for a deal.
No Labels' viewing exercise was partly a subjective one. Does it look like most of the Republicans are standing, or just some of them? Which part of the president's statement are they applauding?
Yet the group's analysis still yielded some intriguing findings, including that, as recently as two decades ago, presidents rarely received bipartisan ovations.
"What we now think of as the norm actually got established in the early 1990s," Galston said.
President Jimmy Carter never received a bipartisan standing ovation during his State of the Union addresses, the group found. Reagan averaged one per year, including for instances where he pronounced the federal deficit "outrageous" and vowed not to have a government shutdown.
President George H.W. Bush got an average of 1.5 bipartisan standing ovations during his term. In 1990, for example, he got both parties on their feet when he said that the government should not "mess around with Social Security."
The modern era of stand-sit-stand calisthenics began with President Bill Clinton. After Bush received four issue-related bipartisan ovations in 1992, Clinton earned 19 in 1993 - technically an address to a joint session of Congress, not a State of the Union - and ended up averaging 20 per year during his tenure.
President George W. Bush averaged 22 per year, with most coming after statements about national security and combating terrorism. Obama had 30 in 2009 - also a joint address - and 34 in 2010, but mostly for talking about the economy.
James Thurber, the director of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, said the spike in bipartisan ovations two decades ago coincided with presidents and their speechwriters becoming savvier about projecting the image of bipartisanship to a large, nationwide audience.
"They know the media's going to be watching," Thurber said. "They know [the number of ovations] will be reported."
Seeking clues about this year's address, No Labels looked particularly closely at 1995 - the last time a Democratic president spoke to a just-elected Republican majority. That year, Clinton got 19 bipartisan ovations, calling for more government spending cuts and more local control, and less illegal immigration, fewer teen pregnancies and less violence in the media.
Obama has gotten more cross-aisle applause than Clinton ever did, even though Galston acknowledges that, by other measures, "polarization between the two parties is at an historic high."
But in the wake of the Giffords shooting, might this year's bipartisan claps actually lead to bipartisan bills? That would give both parties reason to cheer.