The shooting of a Congresswoman in Arizona sparks a rare show of political partnership at Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, but how long will it last? Sarah Smith reports.
Tuesday night was date night on Capitol Hill. As the president came to congress to deliver his annual ‘State of the Union’ address, Congressmen and women and Honorable Senators had all paired off as though it was a prom not a political event.
Each couple had one Democrat and one Republican, sitting together in a show of civilized bipartisan unity. It was the congressional response to what’s become known as the “Tucson Tragedy“.
And just about everyone in the chamber was wearing a black and white striped ribbon in honour of Congresswomen Gabby Giffords who was shot through the head in Tucson on 8 January. Her seat was left empty as she is fighting to recover in a hospital in Houston. Her intern who cared for her in the immediate aftermath of the shooting was in Washington to watch the President’s speech as a special guest of the First Lady.
Bi-partisanship is not much prized in British politics where our adversarial system doesn’t usually allow for much co operation across the parties. It will be interesting to see if the Coalition Government changes that.
In America it has always been held as a lofty goal of the political system that members of both parties should “reach across the aisle” and work together for the greater good. It doesn’t often happen, but it’s talked about a lot.
President Obama talked about it a lot in 2008 when he was running for President. When he promised to bring “change” to America he suggested he would rise above party political squabbling. But the first couple of years of his presidency brought about some of the most bitter partisan battles in a generation.
It was important that Obama try to strike the right note of inclusion and cooperation in his speech. So he praised some Republican ideas and promised to consider others, whilst also laying out his own agenda for the year ahead. And the result was a speech that fell flat. Gone was the lyrical magic that he displayed with his speech Tucson, Arizona, two weeks ago. On that occasion he articulated the nation’s pain and its hopes for a better future perfectly – and saw a considerable jump in the polls as result. On Tuesday night there was none of that inspirational tone – just a list of things Obama thinks need to get done to rebuild America.
It’s very unlikely that the fad for bipartisanship inspired by the shooting in Tucson will last much past the end of this week. Very soon it will be back to business as usual on Capitol Hill.
His most memorable line was when he said this is the new “Sputnik moment”. Comparing the space race of the 1960s to the rush to develop renewable energy sources today.
“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” he said.
“Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race. In a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal.
“We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology – an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.”
But when he announced that he was going to cut subsides to oil companies to pay for investment in renewables there was no applause from Republicans. They might have been sitting beside Democrats but they didn’t all clap together.
Quite often Democrats all over the chamber stood up to applaud whilst their Republican “dates” sat firmly on their hands. And as it’s the Republicans who now control the House of Representatives they are the ones who matter. They are the ones who will do their best to stop President Obama achieving most of what he just told them he wants to do.
It’s very unlikely that the fad for bipartisanship inspired by the shooting in Tucson will last much past the end of this week. Very soon it will be back to business as usual on Capitol Hill. And that means the Republicans will do their best to use their new majority to frustrate the President’s agenda as much as they can, while talking all the time about the need for greater cross-party co operation.