Barack Obama was nearly done speaking Tuesday night when he reached the emotional heart of an otherwise bloodless speech. In a chamber packed with powerful people, many wearing green lapel ribbons to honor the fallen in Newtown, Obama made a stirring call to curb gun violence that zeroed in not on the dead children in Connecticut but on a 15-year-old girl from his own hometown. Hadiya Pendleton was murdered two weeks ago in a park a mile from the President’s house on the South Side of Chicago. A week before that, she sang at his Inauguration with her classmates. Now her parents sat in the House chamber, a symbol of a scourge that Obama wants to end. “They deserve a vote,” he said, and he repeated the refrain as he rattled off the names of communities shattered by mass shootings. “They deserve a simple vote.”
It was the rare raw moment on a night where the pageantry seemed ready to swallow the speech itself. This is how it goes, pundits warned: the State of the Union is an occasion for cable networks’ countdown clocks and lobbyists vying to win a mention for a cause and Congressmen who spend hours squatting in aisle seats for a few hard-won seconds in a camera frame with the leader of the free world. The speech is rarely memorable. It buckles under the weight of its own hype.
For more than 50 minutes, the pundits seemed wise. Obama offered an expansive vision for economic growth and middle-class opportunity. “It is our generation’s task,” he said, “to reignite the true engine of America’s growth — a rising, thriving middle class.” His watchword was jobs, “the North Star that guides our efforts.” The economic argument would have been familiar to any voter who tuned in to the President’s campaign rhetoric last year. There was no new grand theory, no Monroe Doctrine or war on poverty. The speech was a collection of boilerplate themes, gussied up by the pomp of the occasion.
Billed as a bookend to his second Inaugural Address, the speech called for policies that would boost the minimum wage to $9 per hour, establish universal preschool, combat climate change and increase federal investments in infrastructure and research and development. Obama implored Congress to act on these proposals and said he would take executive action if they didn’t. He made a measured case for comprehensive immigration that drew a standing ovation from Paul Ryan. And he name-checked Ryan’s old running mate twice, ostensibly in appeals to bipartisanship but also, perhaps, to remind his opponents that he was there and Mitt Romney wasn’t.
State of the Union speeches are often laundry lists, and this one was no exception. By the time Obama finished laying out his thoughts on the budget and manufacturing, entitlements and energy, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had long since nodded off in the second row. The energy in the room had flagged since the moment Obama entered the House chamber, a little after 9 p.m., and slowly wound his way around the room, pausing in the front row to share an exploding fist-bump with Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican recuperating from a stroke. As Obama checked his boxes, Democrats thumbed their phones or paged through the printed copies of his nearly 6,400-word address. Steny Hoyer pored over the text with a yellow highlighter. Others whispered and fidgeted restlessly.
Republicans, meanwhile, slogged through the joyless ritual of the opposition party: they rose for Obama’s encomiums to bipartisanship (including a pledge to embrace “modest reforms” to Medicare) and stared, stone-faced, through his barbs. The State of the Union is a fine instrument for measuring the breadth of opposing members’ hostility. On one end were Republicans like Lamar Alexander or Ryan, who were quick to rise for an ovation when they felt it was merited. At the other was Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, who passed the night in a near permanent wince, hands clasped in his lap. The veneer of comity began to wear thin.
Then, in its closing minutes, the hour-long speech crescendoed with Obama’s call to curb gun violence — the subject of some of the strongest speeches of his presidency. More than two dozen people “whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence,” Obama said, were present in the House chamber. There was Congressman Jim Langevin, a Rhode Island Democrat who has been a paraplegic since being injured in an accidental shooting at 16. “It’s important to put a human face to the issue of gun violence and show the toll it’s taking on human lives,” Langevin says. Another one of those faces was Gabby Giffords, who clasped her hands and nodded as Obama ticked off the cities and towns riven by mass shootings.
(VIDEO: “They Deserve a Vote”)
“Gabby Giffords deserves a vote,” the President said. “The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek and Tucson and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence — they deserve a simple vote,” Obama said, as Democrats leaped to their feet with cries of “Vote!” and “Amen!”
It was a peroration that showed off the power of the presidency. But those powers have limits. Obama can call for a vote, but he alone can’t determine what the bill contains. He can’t sign reforms that can’t pass a divided Congress. Already, the ambitious proposals that his firearms task force laid out have taken a back seat to the bitter fights looming over the budget and immigration reform. They are likely to be scaled back dramatically.
Without the support of Congress, the ambitious agenda Obama outlined is going nowhere. He finished with a call for lawmakers to be “the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.” As he left the rostrum, Democrats lingered and applauded; Republicans hurried toward the doors.