Tuned In

Fire and Water: A Lot of Words and a Few Indelible Images at the State of the Union

As a re-elected President laid out a vision for his second term and challenged Congress, a violent showdown blazed and TV's attention was divided.

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The night started with a house on fire. Before Barack Obama‘s State of the Union address Tuesday, the cable news networks (and local news on the West Coast) broke into programming with coverage of the siege at a cabin in California where ex-cop/gunman Christopher Dorner had reportedly been holed up.

For a while it looked as if they might split-screen coverage, as they once did the OJ Simpson civil trial verdict with Bill Clinton‘s 1997 State of the Union. The networks ended up cutting away before 9 pm Eastern, but it was a striking contrast: the hideout of a crazed gunman burning in the woods, just before the declaration that the State of the Union was “stronger.”

Whether that assertion was true or not, the President’s confidence certainly seemed stronger. Newly re-elected to a second term, he continued the themes of his second inaugural address with a speech that argued for the role of an activist government–determined to make investments that he argued would pay off as the human genome research did–point by point by point.

By point. By point. The bulk of the speech ran, like most State of the Unions nowadays, as a list of proposals and priorities the President would implement in an ideal world. Preschool, climate change, energy, cybersecurity, antiproliferation, closing tax loopholes, gay rights, an increase in the minimum wage. Some of the steps might be taken by the executive branch; the others would have to get past the Republican House and, thus, were highly theoretical. But he framed an argument for his policies in the language (if not the tone) of bipartisanship, repeating variations on the refrain “We know…” to position himself as the voice of consensus. (Or, more bluntly, to say “I won.”)

Past experience shows that “laundry list” type SOTUs can be effective with the public, even if they don’t make for stirring rhetoric. But the only time it felt like Obama was giving an honest-to-God speech was in the final five minutes or so, beginning with a passionate call for gun control measures. Calling out survivors and family members of shooting victims, Obama used a refrain–“They deserve a vote”–to pitch an argument that Congress should give his proposals a yes-or-no verdict. Crowd members joined in the chant and held up pictures; it was the one moment it felt like his speech was really sweeping across the chamber, capturing a collective voice bigger than his own. Whether it will work politically, it was a strikingly dramatic, emotional moment for a State of the Union address.

The Republican response to Obama had to rely on smaller-scale drama. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, given the thankless job of competing with a grand-stage address with an applause-free speech in front of a window, had the late-night moment of the evening when–having suffered visibly from a parched tongue the whole speech–he lurched across camera to swig from a water bottle. The tree of liberty must occasionally be watered with Poland Spring.

Besides the drymouth moment, though, Rubio spoke about as well as could be expected in a tough position, while not sounding any major, explicit deviations from the GOP 2012 platform. (His big distinction was stylistic, as he gave his response in Spanish as well as in English.) He (or his staff) even rapid-responded smartly with a self-deprecating tweet featuring his water bottle.

The news coverage quickly lurched back to the California siege: seconds after Obama finished, Wolf Blitzer announced “Christopher Dorner is dead!” before CNN (along with other news outlets) walked back the report when the LAPD said it had not yet found a body. No one directly referenced the scary scenario in a speech, but no one exactly needed to: after all the talk of bettering the country and acting in the names of shooting victims, a gunman’s hideout was belching up black smoke.

The state of the union? Still a lot of fires to put out.