Those two events, in 2009 and 2011, represent the slide from decorum and civility on Capitol Hill, while also reminding lawmakers how to rise above the heated debates.
But there’s little doubt which force has been winning lately. In President Obama’s last few speeches to Congress and President Trump’s first few, there’s been less unity than ever at the State of the Union.
The feel-good bipartisanship from 2011 seems like a bygone era from sometime last century. A few weeks after then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was nearly killed outside a Tucson shopping center, lawmakers adorned ribbons to mourn the six lives lost that day, and dozens of lawmakers crossed the aisle to sit in bipartisan pairs.
“Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater — something more consequential than party or political preference,” said Obama, whose guests included Giffords’s surgeon.
Instead, the 2009 “lie” moment feels more recent, more connected to today’s political environment and the nature of discourse among members of Congress. Trump’s Tuesday night address comes on the heels of a 35-day standoff that shuttered portions of the federal government, a contentious fight that played out with immigration serving as the accelerant in the heated battle, just as it was a decade ago.
In September 2009, Obama arrived in the House chamber not for a State of the Union address but instead for a joint session to make his pitch for what turned into the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
Obama used parts of the address to try to debunk rumors percolating through conspiracy corners of the Internet, including one about illegal immigrants receiving government-funded insurance through the proposed law.
“You lie!” Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouted from the Republican side of the chamber.
It was a stunning breach of etiquette, and a week later the House passed a resolution, largely on party lines, admonishing him for the remark.
What made the event more remarkable was Wilson’s own standing in Congress — reliably Republican, not very outspoken, rarely on cable news.
In a sign of where politics and the Internet were headed, Wilson raised more than $2.5 million in the ensuing three weeks for a reelection effort that never became competitive. He has won reelection five times since and has maintained his otherwise low profile focusing on issues that reflect his conservative-leaning constituency.
No congressional member has so disrupted a presidential address since then, but lawmakers make little effort to use these speeches now as unifying moments.
If a Democrat is sitting next to a Republican on Tuesday, it’s almost certainly because Democrats won so many seats in the 2018 midterms that they cannot all fit on their side of the aisle.
Rather than finding your bipartisan seatmate, rank-and-file lawmakers now get strategic advice about how to use their one guest ticket as a political message to show their opposition to the opposing party.
“We have an important opportunity to highlight how President Trump and Washington Republicans are harming the American people — and how Democrats are fighting for the people,” the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee wrote to lawmakers in mid-January.
The committee staff, one of the leadership groups of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), advised Democrats to find guests who would illustrate how Trump is hurting average Americans and “highlight how we are fighting” the GOP agenda.
Republicans do the same thing, having treated Obama’s last few trips to the House chamber as moments to score points with constituents back home.
In Obama’s final speech in the House, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) hosted as his guest a former coal miner from eastern Kentucky. McConnell said that the miner lost his job because of Obama’s “war on coal.”
For certain, these addresses have been partisan events ever since Woodrow Wilson trekked down Pennsylvania Avenue to deliver the first in-person State of the Union in 1913.
The president’s congressional supporters jump up and down for an hour or so, applauding dozens of utterances as the opposition sits stone faced, waiting for the few olive branches offered their way.
And ever since Ronald Reagan honed the practice of guests symbolizing American heroism, the address usually builds to a bipartisan crescendo and long standing ovation. That’s what happened at the end of Trump’s first address to Congress, in March 2017, as he honored the widow of a Navy SEAL who died during a raid against militants in Yemen.
Those made-for-TV moments get lost in the buildup to today’s presidential addresses, as lawmakers and the media seek to get the partisan angles down pat.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a freshman lawmaker who has become a liberal social media sensation, joined that movement Monday when she announced that her guest Tuesday would be Ana Maria Archila.
Archila created a firestorm in September when she helped block the elevators to protest then-Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) for supporting the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh amid allegations of sexual misconduct. Kavanaugh denied the allegations.
The confrontation lasted more than two minutes and was watched by millions online and on TV news. Ocasio-Cortez called Archila “a hero” for the action.
All of which makes Trump’s latest address more likely to be a “you lie” environment than the empty chair for Giffords in 2011.
Flake was the Republican sitting next to that chair, and a year later, during Obama’s 2012 State of the Union, Flake ushered Giffords onto the House floor for one of her last appearances before retiring a couple days later.