About a year ago, one of the more common criticisms from President Obama's detractors was that he'd become "disengaged." A frustrated president, the argument went, had grown listless and cynical. Fox News actually fielded a national poll asking respondents if they thought Obama still wanted to be president.
After last night's State of the Union address, it's a safe bet we won't hear those criticisms again for quite a while.
Love him or hate him, President Obama has rediscovered his audacity. Last night, Americans saw a bold president celebrating his accomplishments, chiding his rivals, and presenting an ambitious agenda built on a foundation of "middle-class economics" (a phrase he referenced six times in his remarks).
In some progressive circles, it's not uncommon to hear the left long for the Obama they loved in 2004, when he burst onto the national stage at the Democratic convention in Boston. The president signaled that he's still very much that guy by repeating the very language he used at the time:
"[J]ust over a decade ago, I gave a speech in Boston where I said there wasn't a liberal America, or a conservative America; a black America or a white America -- but a United States of America.... I know how tempting such cynicism may be. But I still think the cynics are wrong.
"I still believe that we are one people. I still believe that together, we can do great things, even when the odds are long. I believe this because over and over in my six years in office, I have seen America at its best.... I know the good, and optimistic, and big-hearted generosity of the American people who, every day, live the idea that we are our brother's keeper, and our sister's keeper. And I know they expect those of us who serve here to set a better example."
I half expected Obama to start a "Fired up, ready to go" call-and-response with Democrats in the chamber. (It was not the only flashback: towards the end of the SOTU, Obama said, "Fifteen years into this new century, we have picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and begun again the work of remaking America." It was phrasing direct from his first inaugural address in 2009.)
As you likely know by now, special MSNBC coverage of President Obama's State of the Union address tonight begins at 8 p.m. ET. Helmed by Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews, coverage will run through midnight with Chris Hayes, Reverend Al Sharpton, Kasie Hunt, Steve Kornacki and MSNBC contributors Steve Schmidt, Robert Gibbs, Michael Steele, Eugene Robinson, and Victoria DeFrancesco Soto. We also look forward to hearing from Andrea Mitchell, Ed Schultz, Luke Russert, and José Díaz-Balart, and that's not to mention the many guest legislators who will be joining in as well.
If your desire to watch tonight's coverage represents a minority share of the interest in how the TV is deployed in your particular household, FEAR NOT! You can watch it streaming online on your computer and most mobile devices. Go to Now.msnbc.com and connect with your cable provider login. If you have cable, you have a login, whether you realize it or not. If you haven't sorted through the business of doing that yet, this is a good time to get it done - you won't regret it.
And as long as you're planning ahead, keep a browser tab open to Pulse.msnbc.com. Throughout tonight's address you'll see prompts for your reaction. The place to register that reaction will be through that Pulse page.
* ISIS: "ISIS militants released a video purporting to show two Japanese hostages on Tuesday and demanded a $200-million ransom. Global security firm and NBC News counterterrorism consultant Flashpoint Intelligence said the video appeared to be authentic. It features two handcuffed captives in orange garb similar to the jumpsuits worn by Guantanamo Bay detainees kneeling next to a masked jihadi who brandishes a knife."
* Crisis conditions in Yemen: "The presidential residence and palace in Yemen were shelled on Tuesday by Houthi rebel militiamen, the information minister reported, in an escalation of the fighting that has gripped the capital for the past few days and raised fears of a coup in one of the Middle East's weakest countries."
* Related news: "The U.N. Security Council denounced rebels' seizure of Yemen's presidential palace on Tuesday and called on the world to rally behind President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, a strong U.S. ally."
* Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) declared a state of emergency "for two counties on the Yellowstone River, after a pipeline over the river burst on Saturday morning, contaminating the drinking water. Bridger Pipeline LLC, which operates the 12-inch Poplar pipeline, estimates that 300 to 1,200 barrels (2,600 to 50,400 gallons) of light Bakken crude dumped into the Yellowstone [River] before the pipeline was shut off."
* NYC: "A man has been charged in Manhattan with trying to buy three to five lethal doses of the highly toxic poison ricin, seemingly for the purpose of reselling it, according to a criminal complaint unsealed on Tuesday in Federal District Court."
* I'm sure they were just in the neighborhood: "An armed Russian spy ship, the Victor Leonov CCB-175, sailed into Havana harbor this morning, just hours before the Obama Administration and the Havana government will sit down for bilateral talks. The Russian warship is openly docked at a cruise ship terminal in the port of Havana, in plain sight for all to see."
When President Obama delivers his State of the Union address tonight, he's very likely to spend some time touting the improved economic conditions, and he'll have quite a bit of good news to share -- on nearly every front, the U.S. economy hasn't looked this good in several years. Indeed, given global conditions, the American economy is now the envy of the world.
And that leaves Republicans with an awkward task. At this point, the GOP's recent rhetoric -- Obama is destroying the economy through health care reform, taxes, and regulations -- has been completely discredited. This morning on Fox News, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus presented an entirely different pitch.
"Without getting into too many of the specifics on policy, as chairman of the party, but I think that sure some loopholes can be closed [through tax reform]. But the reality is, is that none of that dinking and dunking  is going to change anything about the trajectory of the economy , unless you take a serious look at the overall tax code , simplify it, do some fairly significant things to the code and do the types of things that Paul Ryan has been delivering to the Senate for the last five years .
"Now they'll have that chance as chairman of the Ways and Means [Committee] in order to get the economy turned around . We've got a -- the president's going to try to tell people that Americans aren't struggling and the economy's great . We've got the worst labor participation rate since Jimmy Carter's been president ."
I took the liberty of adding these annotation notes because Reince Priebus' message needs some work. Let's unwrap the RNC chairman's take, because we're likely to be hearing more of it:
Congressional Republicans have created quite a mess for themselves on Homeland Security funding, and as of this afternoon, GOP lawmakers clearly have no idea how to clean it up.
For those just joining us, Republicans were so outraged by President Obama's popular immigration moves in November that they created a showdown: funding for the Department of Homeland Security will expire at the end of February -- unless the president agrees to undo everything he's done for undocumented immigrants, including Dream Act kids.
The gambit appears destined to fail, in large part because Senate GOP leaders have already made clear they have no intention of allowing a partial government shutdown to happen. But with House Republicans demanding a ransom from Obama and Senate Republicans moving in a different direction, how will Congress avoid a disaster? Even GOP leaders have no idea.
It's led some far-right lawmakers to try to argue that cutting of DHS funding wouldn't be so bad. BuzzFeed reported today:
Sen. Ron Johnson, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said Tuesday he isn't concerned about the potential shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security.
"Even in the last government shut down only 13.6% of DHS employees were furloughed," Johnson said. "So the national security aspects, the aspects of the department that keeps America safe, are continuing to function no matter what happens in this very dysfunctional place."
The far-right Wisconsinite has always struck me as an odd choice to lead an important panel like the Senate Homeland Security Committee, in part because he's struggled repeatedly with the basics of public policy in general, and in part because of his often bizarre understanding of issues related to public security in particular.
And in this case, Johnson's lack of concern about DHS funding -- which, as Homeland Security Committee chairman, he should probably understand -- is simply detached from reality.
Proponents of the Keystone XL oil pipeline clearly have a dilemma for which there is no easy solution: they've run out of talking points. When Republicans first began pushing the project in earnest, Keystone was billed as a way to lower gas prices, but with prices at the pump already having dropped, and the project itself unrelated to gas costs, the argument has faded.
The other selling point was the vast number of jobs Keystone would allegedly create, but an independent State Department study found that the project would create about 35 permanent, full-time American jobs -- roughly what we'd see from "opening a new Denny's franchise." There would be far more temporary jobs associated with Keystone, but they'd come and go fairly quickly.
Rebecca Leber noted the other day that Keystone backers, left with limited choices, are getting creative.
According to [the American Petroleum Institute], the pipeline is just like the Mona Lisa: "One of the world's most recognized works of art was created by a painter who made his living on temporary jobs."
Connecting Keystone to the da Vinci masterpiece, API Vice President Linda Rozett specifically said temporary jobs can be "awesome." Soon after, the Institute's exec tweeted a promotional image comparing Keystone to the Sistine Chapel -- because both were "temporary" jobs.
The American Petroleum Institute did not appear to be kidding.
Today's installment of campaign-related news items that won't necessarily generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers:
* In the newest NBC News/Wall Street Journalpoll, only 27% of Americans have a positive view of Mitt Romney, while 40% have a negative impression. For Hillary Clinton, those numbers are largely reversed, with 45% rating her positively, and 37% seeing her in a negative light.
* On a related note, Clinton is reportedly "assembling a heavily research-driven campaign" operation, and "developing a smarter, more relevant campaign message focused on economic opportunity and her lifelong work to better women's lives." A fascinating Washington Post report added, "Several of Obama's prominent strategists are now supporting Clinton, and she is incorporating his model of using several pollsters and strategy advisers to diversify information coming into the campaign."
* As Rick Santorum moves closer to his second presidential campaign, he's reflecting on his 2012 bid, and he regrets saying "crazy stuff that doesn't have anything to do with anything." He intends to say fewer "dumb things" this time around.
* In Illinois, which will likely be home to one of next year's more closely watched U.S. Senate races, Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D) said yesterday she intends to "explore the possibility" of a statewide campaign. "I'm ready to really explore the possibility of a run," the Iraq War veteran added.
* Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) "tentatively plans" to move forward with his plans for a presidential campaign, filling top campaign posts with aides he hired last year to "expand his political operation."
* If elected president, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) would be the first president since Truman not to have a college degree, and only the second president since 1901 not to at least have a bachelor's.
In about 10 hours, President Obama will stand on the House floor and deliver his penultimate State of the Union address. In the meantime, the pre-speech chatter is dominated by Republicans telling us all the reasons they're not going to like what the president has to say.
"I see this as the president returning to the theme of class warfare," said Representative Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois. "It may have been effective in 2012, but I don't find it to be effective anymore. I think, frankly, he's out of ideas if he is unwilling to work with Republicans, and I think he is unwilling to work with Republicans."
For a three-sentence, throwaway line, there's actually a couple of important angles to this.
The first is this notion that the president is "out of ideas." Obviously, the opposite is true -- Obama intends to talk up all kinds of new and noteworthy policy initiatives, including free community college, an expansive broadband initiative, a national effort on paid family leave, and a big middle-class tax break.
But Kinzinger didn't say specifically that Obama's "out of ideas," rather, that the president is "out of ideas if he is unwilling to work with Republicans." What an interesting phrase -- Obama is capable of having an innovative and effective agenda, but only if it's comprised of ideas Republicans like.
For that matter, given that GOP lawmakers have spent the last six years refusing to compromise with the White House on anything, at times even opposing ideas they support the moment the president announces his agreement with Republicans, Kinzinger's entire argument seems a little silly.
It seems like ages ago, but it was just September when much of the country was in the midst of a real freak-out over the Ebola virus. Many Republicans, seeing the African outbreak as a campaign issue, immediately started running attack ads intended to scare people, while some in media seemed a little too eager to label Ebola -- let's all say it together -- "Obama's Katrina."
But one of the more memorable political moments came when Republicans expressed outrage that the White House had not yet named an "Ebola czar." President Obama eventually agreed and asked Ron Klain to oversee and coordinate the federal response to the virus, which led to even moreRepublican outrage.
Too often, it seems as if we're not supposed to reflect on instances in which GOP apoplexy turned out to be ridiculously wrong, but Michael Grunwald's new interview with Klain is a reminder that the Republicans' freak out last fall was not their finest hour.
GRUNWALD: When you were first announced, the immediate reaction, particularly on the right, was: "What a joke! Democratic hack!" There was the Twitter meme of people with more health care experience who were better qualified to be the Ebola coordinator, with pictures of George Clooney in his ER uniform and various Simpsons characters. What was your reaction to that?
KLAIN: I've been around public life long enough to know that you're going to take some licks if you're in the public spotlight. I think people maybe had a misperception of what was needed. We had great medical advisers; the president was getting great advice from Dr. Fauci, from Dr. [Tom] Frieden, who runs the CDC [Centers for Disease Control], from a panoply of other medical experts. I think the White House was looking for someone to come in and do the very unglamorous, bureaucratic coordination it takes to produce a response of this size. I think folks here knew I had done that with the Recovery Act and saw this as a very similar kind of project. It was taking a 14-or-15-agency response, a lot of great people, and making it all work together, figuring out where the seams were, figuring out what policy decisions needed to get made. But I understand the public perception was a little different, and, you know, that just is what it is.
Yes, and "what it is" serves as an example of the right having a breakdown for no particular reason.
Last week, at chairman's Reince Priebus' insistence, the Republican National Committee unveiled a schedule of party-approved debates for the 2016 presidential nominating contest. In all, between August and February, would-be Republican presidents will meet for nine debates, a third of which will be hosted by a Fox network.
With this hurdle cleared, party officials will now have to decide who gets to participate in this limited series of events.
Reince Priebus, Republican National Committee chairman, says that potential presidential contenders will have to poll above certain levels to earn a spot in the GOP debates.
In a radio interview on the "Hugh Hewitt Show" Monday, the conservative host asked Priebus how the debates would work if there were 20 candidates vying to be heard.
"You can't do 20 people," Priebus noted, conceding what is plainly true. He added, "You have to have certain thresholds in place, so you have to be at 1 percent of the vote in Iowa, and that threshold can move like a slide rule based on the proximity to the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primaries, just like it did before."
That's probably a responsible approach, though I think this may be trickier than party officials might like.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), as expected, traveled to London yesterday and delivered a striking set of remarks, arguing among other things, "It is startling to think that any country would allow, even unofficially, for a so-called 'no-go zone.'"
To briefly recap, far-right voices have pushed a line, amplified by conservative media, that in Britain and elsewhere, there are Muslim-majority communities in which non-Muslims -- even local law enforcement -- simply do not go. In reality, these "no-go zones" do not exist, a point even Fox News conceded over the weekend.
Jindal nevertheless continues to pretend the far-right myth is real, adding that "Islam has a problem." In his remarks yesterday, referring to Muslims, the Louisiana Republican and likely presidential candidate went on to say, "[I]t is their problem, and they need to deal with it."
After the speech, Jindal told NBC News that he supports "legal immigration," but added, "[I]n many ways, you're looking at folks that want to come and, in some ways, they want to overturn our culture they want to come in and almost colonize our countries."
In a separate interview with CNN, Jindal continued to push the "no-go zones" argument, prompting a British interviewer to say, "You have to have proper facts to back that up. I've lived here a long time; I don't know of any 'no-go zones.'" The Republican replied:
"Well, I did say 'so-called no-go zones.' I think that the radical left absolutely wants to pretend like this problem is not here. Pretending it's not here won't make it go away."
Remember, Jindal's the one who said he wants Republicans to stop being "the stupid party."
Not too long ago, a president would deliver a State of the Union address... and that was it. Much of the country would see the speech, pundits would talk about it, and either the political world would respond favorably or it wouldn't.
In the 1960s, Republicans decided it wasn't entirely fair for a president to have all the fun, and the official State of the Union response was born.
But in the Obama era, as GOP politics went off the deep end, the number of speeches on the big night proliferated. Last year, in addition to President Obama's actual SOTU, there was an official Republican response, an official Republican Spanish-language response, a Tea Party response, Sen. Rand Paul's (R-Ky.) self-indulgent response, and a "prebuttal" from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) because, well, why the heck not.
This year, the fact that Republicans tapped Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) for the party's official response seemingly negated the need for competing conservative voices -- Ernst is, after all, one of the most frighteningly right-wing senators in a generation. Why bother with a Tea Party response if the Republican address will be delivered by arguably the most radical voice in the Senate?
Rep. Curt Clawson (R-Fla.) will deliver the tea party's response to President Barack Obama's 2015 State of the Union address, the Tea Party Express announced Thursday.
"2015 marks a year of new beginnings for the Tea Party movement," Tea Party Express executive director Taylor Budowich said in a statement. "These new Tea Party members of Congress are brimming with ideas to make America economically stronger with opportunity for all to realize the American Dream. We are honored to present Florida Congressman Curt Clawson, the first Tea Party Express victory for the 2014 cycle, as someone committed to making Congress deliver for the American people."
To appreciate what makes the selection interesting, consider the impression Congressman Clawson has made over the course of his brief, seven-month career on Capitol Hill.