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You’re not in Kansas anymore

| Thursday, January 30, 2014

Not long ago, everyone considered the annual State of the Union address a yearly grand presentation reminiscent of the dignified ancient Greek theatre masks symbolizing the duality of life — Melpomene, the muse of tragedy and Thalia, the muse of comedy. Regardless of party or political stance, presidents spoke earnestly with formality and distinction before a respectful, courteous joint session of Congress. Franklin D. Roosevelt reassured the nation following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Lyndon B. Johnson honored the legacy of John F. Kennedy, slain by an assassin. This writer stood on the floor of the House of Representatives just 10 feet from an optimistic Ronald Reagan. But alas, in recent years many in Congress have turned the evening into personal farces through their rude and outright zany antics as though they traveled over the rainbow into another realm.
In 2009, during President Obama’s first State of the Union speech, South Carolina Republican Addison Graves “Joe” Wilson was formally rebuked by the House of Representatives when he breached longstanding decorum by pointing at the president and twice yelling, “You lie.” At this week’s speech, Representative Steve Stockman (R-Texas) walked out to protest what Stockman called “a wholesale violation of [Obama’s] oath of office and a disqualifying offense.” Stockman has brought with him such harsh critics of the President like Ted Nugent and Chad Henderson, a student whose hoax of enrolling into Obamacare misled journalists.
Obama succinctly articulated his accomplishments, oftentimes understated by his administration. Honoring American citizens who make the state of our union strong, the President listed milestones such as the lowest unemployment rate in more than five years, a rebounding housing market, deficits cut by more than half and a manufacturing sector adding jobs for the first time since the 1990s. He further noted that more oil is produced at home than bought from the rest of the world — the first time in nearly 20 years. He concluded by saying that for the first time in more than a decade, business leaders worldwide have restored the United States over China as the world’s number one place to invest.
Of 80 interruptions, the president’s speech split about down the middle — three due to laughter, 40 standing ovations (19 bipartisan, 21 Democrat-only), while 42 rounds of applause were Democrats-only, 36 rounds were bipartisan and only two rounds were indistinguishable. CNN Polls conducted both before and after his speech asked if the president’s policies “will move the country in the right direction.” Obama gained 17 percentage points after delivering this year’s address, rising from 52 percent prior to 69 percent afterward — almost identical to George W. Bush’s 16 percent jump in 2006 when he also began at 52 and rose to 68 percent.
Nearly a third of respondents said Obama should act alone on major issues while two-thirds preferred that he work across party lines and compromise. Obama invited the GOP to work together. However, he also warned that continual gridlock forces him to act within his executive powers to overcome the stalemate.
Afterwards, the political factions split the post-speech dialogue. The more zany Obama foes seemingly whisked down some yellow brick road. Rod Serling should have introduced them crossing over with, “You unlock this door with the key of imagination. You’re traveling to another dimension, not only of sight and sound, but also of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of the imagination. At the sign post up ahead, your next stop? The Twilight Zone.”
Some like Stockman hover on the bubble of pseudo-psycho talk, ginning up his political base by framing issues with wild-eyed rhetoric and straw-man issues. Obviously not admitting that the current deficits or unemployment numbers are lower, Stockman said, “After five years in office, Obama refuses to admit his policies have failed.” Stockman is running in the Texas Senate primary against incumbent Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
Others, like Representative Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas), simply dive headfirst into the Land of Oz by disrespectfully and blatantly ignoring traditional decorum while tweeting a running stream of more than a dozen insults aimed at the President during the speech. The Kansas Republican posted such invective against the Commander and Chief saying the speech “reads like dictates from a King” and accusing the president of an “imperial presidency,” asking if “a diplomat in Benghazi … gave his life for his country,” using “crony capitalism” and “politicizing the military to end his speech.”
Huelskamp sealed his first-place prize for whacko-of-the-night by confronting MSNBC television host Rachel Maddow. Asked to explain his tweets, Huelskamp said, “[Regarding Bangazi] … because it’s Hillary Clinton you don’t want the answers, Rachel, face the fact. The President very clearly ran against the military. He continues to highlight them when it helps politically … Oh it’s pretty clear. He wanted to bring the troops home, he wants to close Gitmo, he wants to do all kinds of things … it’s very clear, and all of a sudden he’s all for presidential power now.”
Should anyone have the phone number for Toto, please urge the canine to run for Congress and bring sanity back to the First District of Kansas.

Gary J. Caruso, Notre Dame ‘73, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director at the U.S. House of Representatives and in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can contacted at GaryJCaruso@alumni.nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.


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