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January 27, 2011

CONTACT: K.E. Schwab




State of the Union address –

SRU political science professor offers play-by-play comments


SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. – For at least one Slippery Rock University assistant professor of political science, Tuesday’s State of the Union address by President Barack Obama was “The Super Bowl,” complete with pre-game, offense and defense, highlight reel – and overtime.

           Heather Frederick, a member of the SRU faculty since 2005 offered the following play-by-play commentary as she tuned into the two-hour inside look at government at work:


           The countdown begins: One hour until the State of the Union, and I’m watching the pre-game show. This is my Super Bowl. My students laugh when I say that, but it’s true. I watch the pre-game, the address (the offense), the response (the defense), and the post-game wrap up and highlight reel. I’ve been anticipating this all day.

My entire family knows the only times they may not call me is during the State of the Union address, a political party convention, or Election Night. These are my nights. I don’t go to a bar or to a friend’s house; I need to be alone. There can be no talking, no interruptions. Just me and the event.

As a political scientist and professor of American politics, I’m interested in how President Obama will approach this State of the Union address. Last year, he delivered a smack down to the national government: he criticized the Supreme Court for a campaign finance decision (to which Justice [Samuel] Alito responded by shaking his head! I nearly fell off my couch!) and he laid down the law to Congress, telling them no more earmarks, that things had to change.

But that was last year; the president had a unified government to pursue his agenda. Now he’s facing a divided government, the Republicans have majority control of the House of Representatives. The story will be different.

As a political junkie, I’m looking forward to seeing how drastically President Obama will alter his policy agenda and how often he will utter the words, “bipartisan cooperation.”

I also cannot wait to see congressional reaction to the president’s priorities when Democrats and Republicans have for the first time decided to sit together during the speech. I have to say, one of my favorite parts of watching the State of the Union is seeing one side of the House chamber rise to their feet in applause for a presidential initiative while the other side sits sullen, uncomfortably and silently disapproving of the policy. What will happen tonight when opposing parties sit together in what some political pundits are calling “Date Night”?

I also love to find out who the cabinet member in the presidential order of succession will be who watches the address from the White House under the guard of the Secret Service. Thank goodness, that if a catastrophe happens and the Capitol building implodes, killing the president, the vice president, the speaker of the house, the president pro tempore of the senate, the entire House of Representatives, all 100 senators, the Supreme Court, the cabinet, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we have the secretary of the interior to carry on the business of the American federal government!

I’m teaching an upper-level seminar on Congress this semester. We’re only two weeks into class and already my students are frustrated by our legislative process and amazed that anything at all gets accomplished.

What many people do not realize is that regardless of what a presidential candidate says he will do or what a president says needs to be done, he cannot do it without Congress.

Will President Obama present moderate proposals that he knows he can get through a Republican House or will he swing for the fences and make the case to the American people that his agenda is essential to fixing the economy? If he can do the latter (and if he tries, he must do it well), the American people can pressure their representatives in Congress to achieve those goals.

People are beginning to file into the House chamber, only 20 minutes until kickoff.

The president has just been announced. Nice tie. Purple. Interesting choice.

Perhaps that tie is a message that the red states and blue states need to come together? Am I reading too much into a fashion choice? I doubt it. How long is it going to take for him to make it down the aisle? Members of Congress actually stand in line for hours to get one of the seats on the aisle to shake the president’s hand and get some “camera time.”

Are people really trying to have a conversation with him right now? President Obama appears confident, relaxed, and happy. He’s spending extra time talking to Justice [Stephen] Breyer, whom I heard speak in Pittsburgh last semester and whom I now affectionately refer to as “my boyfriend.”

The new Speaker of the House, John Boehner, was just acknowledged by the president and got a standing ovation. Didn’t shed a tear.

Obama is talking about change, but certainly not the change of which he spoke when he was running for president. This discussion of change is more of a realistic wake-up call. I appreciate that the president is setting forth concrete policy proposals rather than speaking in generalizations like, “We need more jobs and better education.” Whether one agrees with his agenda or not, at least he has specific ideas of how to achieve more jobs and better education.

Oh, how I love it when the camera cuts to a member of Congress in the audience who appears to be asleep. And while I’m on this aside, is it really necessary for members of Congress to read along with the speech? It makes them appear inattentive and/or bored. That’s just rude. (In addition to listening intently to the substance of the president’s speech, I’m also keeping one eye on Vice President [Joseph] Biden because you never really know what that guy is going to do.)

The president just proposed ending the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans. Members of Congress may still be sitting next to members of the opposite party, but I’m pretty sure the date is over. Speaker Boehner looks like he’s biting the inside of his very tan cheek.

Obama addresses the success of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” so that gays and lesbians can serve openly in the armed services. Speaker Boehner shifts very uncomfortably in his seat.

The State of the Union address just ended. Maybe I’m a sap, but regardless of whether the president is a Republican or a Democrat, I always get misty-eyed. These speeches inspire me, want me to be a better American, strive to be a better person. Maybe I’m just a poli-sci nerd.

But this is simply the end of the first half, time for the halftime commentary from the analysts. The Republican response soon follows. And a surprise overtime event: a response from the Tea Party. I think that is a serious message that activists in the Tea Party are not thrilled to throw their fortune in with the GOP.

The political pundits are giving the president mixed reviews on his speech. No surprise there.

Paul Ryan, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin, provided the Republican response. This is the first opposing party response to the president’s State of the Union in a very long time that actually responded to the president’s speech.

These are usually more like stand alone messages that outline the opposition’s agenda. This is a response, a different perspective of solving the problems outlined by the president and how the Republicans believe these issues should be addressed.

Of course, it’s also a “trash the president” speech emphasizing what the GOP views as the failures of the Obama administration. I think this is a good speech, a solid representation of conservative values; I just wish the Republicans had chosen someone else to give it. Why do I feel like this guy is talking to a kindergarten class? He may think he is appearing as compassionate, but I think he sounds condescending. He said America deserves better, I think the Republicans deserved a better speaker.

Michele Bachmann, a Republican congresswoman from Minnesota, delivered the second response to the State of the Union on behalf of the Tea Party.

One point of clarification: the Tea Party is not a political party; it is part of the Republican Party. However, it is a faction of the Republican Party that clearly has very specific goals that do not always parallel those of the GOP. Congresswoman Bachmann is a much better speaker than Congressman Ryan, and she’s got visual aids. Good speech, clear policy objectives, and to the point. I love that she encouraged Americans to contact their representatives.

She’s an impressive speaker with great Power Point slides and an inspiring message. But could they have moved the teleprompter a bit to the left so it at least appeared as if she was speaking to the camera?

My Super Bowl is officially over. Unfortunately, this is not a game. This is real life, real politics, real government. The decisions and policy that develop from this address are unknown. The success or failure of the president’s priorities is still a mystery. Americans will have to wait months, perhaps years, to understand whether this State of the Union address had any impact on the legislation that follows this speech.

The battle is on. Will President Obama succeed in pursuing his policy agenda? Will the Republicans effectively stop that agenda and implement their own? Will the American people even care or notice? This is not a game; this is our government.

But if it were, at least, we would know who won.




To see President Obama’s State of the Union address, click here:




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