State of the Union 'response' often a mixed-blessing for the responder

The Post's Dan Balz analyzes President Obama's State of the Union address.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 12:36 AM

Two House Republicans offered back-to-back responses to the State of the Union address Tuesday night - both bashing President Obama for ballooning government budgets but offering few specifics for solving the problem.

The first came from Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), who offered the GOP's official response. Ryan's message was a stark reply to Obama's speech, in which the president had repeated the words "We do big things" to emphasize the American capacity to overcome.

America, Ryan said in response, was about to be overcome - by the pressures of its growing debt.

"A few years ago, reducing spending was important. Today, it's imperative," Ryan said, speaking from the House Budget Committee room. He said that without action, the United States could soon face the same crises that have crippled Ireland, Greece and other European countries. "We face a crushing burden of debt. The debt will soon eclipse our entire economy and grow to catastrophic levels in the years ahead."

After Ryan spoke, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) gave a speech described as the tea party response to Obama's address. She showed only hints of the strident rhetoric that has made her a national media figure: She called the new health-care law "Obamacare" several times but never "socialism."

Bachmann, like Ryan, called for the repeal of that health-care overhaul. But beyond that, neither gave many details about how to make potentially unpopular cuts in federal spending.

Instead, both made the same pledge: We're working on it.

"We can do this. That's our hope. We will push forward. We will proclaim liberty throughout the land," Bachmann said as a screen behind her showed a copy of the Constitution. "And we will do so because 'We the People' will never give up on this great nation."

This was an unusual reprise of a 45-year Washington tradition, in which the opposing party sets out to rebut the president on a night when the president holds all the cards. Obama, like presidents before him, had the grand backdrop of the House chamber. He had the best line: "The state of our union is strong!" And he had the early time slot, starting a few minutes after 9 p.m.

This year, the dueling responses probably made it even harder for either Republican to be heard.

Would viewers remember Ryan, using only his expressive face to convey worry about the debt? Or would they remember Bachmann's screen, which showed bar graphs and patriotic images behind her? At one point, she showed the iconic photo of Marines raising an American flag over Iwo Jima in World War II.

"Our current debt crisis we face today is different," Bachmann said, "but we still need all of us to pull together."

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