Tuned In

SOTU Roundup; or, What Is Michele Bachmann Looking At?

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When CNN announced that it would air not only the official GOP response to the State of the Union address but a live Tea Party response, given by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), I was skeptical. On the one hand, it gave the GOP two responses—a courtesy not afforded to opposition party factions, third parties or splinter groups in the past—and on the other, worked to reinforce the meme of a schism between the establishment Republican party and the Tea Party wing. (Of course, one could argue that the Tea Party is a separate movement from the GOP, though that’s undercut by the polling showing its members to be largely Republican, and that Bachmann is herself a Republican.)

But I’m glad they went with it, because to do otherwise would have cheated us of one of the more memorable political videos in a while.

First—and second and third—there was Bachmann’s gaze, which she seemed to be directing fervently and intently to someone 30 degrees to her camera’s left. Apparently, according to CNN’s Sam Feist, there was a snafu in which Bachmann was looking into the Tea Party camera rather than the network pool camera. But the effect was unsettling. What was she staring at? A silent audience? A ghost that only she could see? Someone standing over my shoulder with a knife?

The content of her speech was a more aggressive version of the small-government pitch made by Paul Ryan just before her, as she decried the stimulus as a failure, blamed President Obama for high unemployment and referenced a personal recurring theme of hers, that the government is trying to tell us what light bulbs we can buy.

And in a Perotista flourish, she supported her speech with charts casting Obama’s economic performance harshly. Even in HD, it was easier to see the bars than to read the tiny-print numbering, but the visual message was: the President has failed us, and I have proved it with facts on a screen. (For its part, the Obama administration aired its own pop-up-video version of the SOTU, enhanced by graphics, at the White House web site.)

Bachmann began her speech saying that she was not giving it to compete with the official GOP response, though whether it actually did is ultimately in the eyes of the home viewers. It’s also possible that her more-combative talk, focused mainly on criticisms of the past two years, allowed Ryan to play the GOP’s good-cop role—or at least the cop-not-staring-at-an-unseen-being role—in his official rebuttal.

In recent years, opposition SOTU responses have experimented with the format of the rebuttal, which, when given to a silent camera, comes off weakly next to a grand address in the Capitol. Last year, Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia gave his speech to an audience in the Virginia statehouse. This year, Ryan—picked by the GOP for his staunch advocacy of budget-cutting, and possibly his youthful looks—went the more traditional route.

In a best-case scenario, this type of response ends up looking like a well-made human-resources video. (A circumstance underscored, as one viewer on my Twitter feed noticed, by Ryan’s resemblance to Gabe from The Office.) But Ryan’s speech offered a direct antithesis without vitriol, casting the choice ahead for the government as one between the “imperative” deep cuts favored by the GOP (though his speech, unlike his much-publicized proposals, avoided too much detail about what to cut) and the easing and “investment” of the Obama administration.

President Obama, meanwhile, focused his speech on “Winning the Future,” a phrase that both recalled an X-Files tagline and lifted the title of a 2005 book by his possible GOP 2012 opponent Newt Gingrich. Obama opened the address with a mention of the shooting in Tucson, pointing out the empty chair of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and a call for comity and co-operation. (Not just after the shooting, but after his party’s whomping in November.) Many of the politicians in the chamber wore ribbons in honor of the shooting victims; Obama seemed to offer a gesture of bipartisanship by choosing a tie somewhere toward the middle of the red-blue color spectrum. (Reasonable TV monitors and their color-correction can disagree, but from here it looked to be periwinkle or lavender.)

Obama’s speech was not sharply worded, but it was strongly themed, organized around the theme of preparing America to thrive in a changed global economy. The “Win the Future” structure allowed the President to work in many Administration goals while not delivering the “laundry list” that pundits say has become a cliché of SOTU speechmaking. (An associated cliché: the use of the term “laundry list” by pundits.)

In another much-publicized gesture of “new tone” symbolism, the congresspeople were assembled, not by party, but in “dates” of paired pols from opposite parties. That may have subdued the response in the room to some extent—more united applause, but fewer pointed displays of huzzahs and silence—but it also made it more interesting to watch. Deprived of the peer-pressure cues of seeing like-minded colleagues sit or stand, cheer or scowl, the representatives had to make quick decisions on how visibly to support, say, the mention of child-labor laws. (One moment of bipartisan unity: sustained laughter at a smoked-salmon joke worthy of the Catskills.)

The coverage of the speech on cable news, meanwhile, was in its own way an institution moving on from recent upheavals and charges of excess in tone. MSNBC had a group of largely center-to-left opinion hosts, minus the recently departed Keith Olbermann, though his replacement, Lawrence O’Donnell, was fairly critical of the “soft” language of the President’s speech. Fox News had a panel that included from the left Juan Williams, who after last year’s high-profile departure from NPR, is now simply Fox News’ Juan Williams.

CNN’s panel, meanwhile, had two purposes: analyzing the SOTU and trying to burnish the American-news credentials of new host Piers Morgan, whom most U.S. TV viewers are more used to seeing judge things with a big red X on his podium, on America’s Got Talent. And Olbermann, it turned out, showed up to comment after all: on Twitter, where he kept up a running commentary through the night. (“Response to earmark veto: Reps & Sens looked like passengers who start to stand as flight is called then hear “now seating Row 1.”)

In the news business too, the theme was consistent: moving on to the next thing. The future is a challenge; it is waiting to be won. And Michele Bachmann can see it… just over your left shoulder…