“Today, we live in a time of threats like few others in recent memory,” said Haley, viewed as a potential vice presidential candidate, speaking from Columbia, her state’s capital. “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation. No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.”
Trump’s rise has been uncomfortable for many in the GOP establishment, especially when last month he advocated a temporary ban on Muslims coming to the United States following the deadly shootings in San Bernardino, Calif. But Haley, whose parents are Indian immigrants and who at 43 is the country’s youngest governor, is a face party leaders have been eager to have carry the GOP message.
The decision by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to have her deliver the response to Obama’s address came just a few weeks before Republican voters are set to caucus in Iowa on Feb. 1, the first contest in the 2016 presidential race.
“I am the proud daughter of Indian immigrants who reminded my brothers, my sister and me every day how blessed we were to live in this country,” she said. “My story is really not much different from millions of other Americans. Immigrants have been coming to our shores for generations to live the dream that is America.”
Other GOP presidential candidates, such as Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), while not going as far as Trump have also been seeking to portray themselves as tough on immigration and to distance themselves from past stances that have led to some charges that they are soft on the issue.
And while warning against listening to angry voices, Haley was also careful not to stray from the immigration position embraced by the party’s mainstream.
“At the same time, that does not mean we just flat out open our borders,” she said. “We can’t do that. We cannot continue to allow immigrants to come here illegally. And in this age of terrorism, we must not let in refugees whose intentions cannot be determined.”
After the speech, some of South Carolina’s Republican representatives praised Haley without quite echoing her sentiments about angry voices. In a video response, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) congratulated Haley for an “outstanding job,” but did not comment on the content of the speech. In the Capitol, after reading sections of her remarks, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said that Haley was reflecting on her upbringing and the agenda Republicans had discussed at a South Carolina policy forum the week before.
“I didn’t see her comments as her an attack on any individual,” he said.
Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), who preceded Haley in the governor’s office, did hear a hint of Trump criticism in Haley’s speech.
“One could read it that way,” said Sanford. “Generically, broad brush — yeah, we’d all agree with that. Here’s the danger: People are angry. What Washington doesn’t get is the degree of absolute frustration that’s out there on the grassroots level. I spoke on Saturday morning at the Dorchester County Republican meeting, and people were hacked off. The jet fuel behind the Trump campaign, the Carson campaign, and even the Sanders campaign, is disaffected people. Washington needs to react to that.”
More broadly, Republicans used Obama’s State of the Union address as a chance to portray his presidency as one that has left the economy in disarray and failed to respond to emerging national security threats.
“His policies aren’t working. He didn’t have an answer for how to defeat ISIS.” Ryan said in a statement following Obama’s speech. “If everything were as great as he said it was, two-thirds of the American people wouldn’t say the country is on the wrong track.”
Obama’s warnings against overestimating the threat the Islamic State poses to the United States, in particular, struck a chord with Republicans.
“Tonight we saw President Obama’s habit of downplaying the severity of the threats facing our nation,” House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said in a statement. “The truth is, the United States now faces the highest threat level since the 9/11 attacks.”
Delivering the State of the Union response could help elevate Haley politically, as it has for some while proving a punishing format for others.
It worked for Ryan when he gave the rebuttal in 2011 at a time when he was best known for promoting a politically divisive budget plan that cut Social Security and Medicare spending. A year later he was the Republican vice presidential candidate. But Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s 2009 rebuttal largely flopped and his political rise stalled in the years that followed, culminating in his short and unsuccesful bid for the 2016 presidential nomination that he pulled the plug on in November.
And Rubio’s 2013 response is best known for when he awkwardly grabbed for a glass of water mid rebuttal, making him the butt of jokes that year. Three years later, however, the Florida Republican is among the front-runners in the race for the GOP presidential nomination.
Haley, who was poised throughout her remarks, has already been under the national klieg lights on several occasions this year — particularly in the aftermath of a shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. where a gunman killed nine people in hopes, he said, of starting a race war. Days after the incident, she called for removing the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capitol. It came down in July.
She referenced that episode in her comments, drawing an “important lesson” from the experience.
“We removed a symbol that was being used to divide us, and we found a strength that united us against a domestic terrorist and the hate that filled him,” Haley said.
South Carolina is also at the center of some of the most controversial and long-running grievances the Republican party has with the Obama administration. Haley is a vocal opponent to Obama’s calls to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and resettle those detainees in the United States – a South Carolina Navy brig is one of the proposed sites. She also joined members of her party in opposing plans to resettle more Syrian refugees in the United States, asking the State Department not to send any to South Carolina after initially seeming open to the idea.
Haley has also been critical of labor unions, campaigning against a bid by workers at a South Carolina Boeing plant to unionize earlier this year. She also stuck with her party’s criticism of Obamacare by refusing to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
These issues will be on display in just a few weeks, when the Republican primary contest comes to South Carolina on Feb. 20.
Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect day for when Haley delivered her remarks.