It must be stressful being a member of Congress during the State of the Union. Every line demands a critical snap decision – to applaud or not applaud?
There are the easy choices: The entire room joined in a long and emotional cheer for Cory Remsburg, an Army Ranger who was wounded in Afghanistan on his tenth deployment. Then the tougher ones: If you’re a Republican, do you stand up when Obama talks about women’s equality or sit down to protest an ongoing feud with Democrats over the “War on Women?” And sometimes the wording can throw you for a loop: after Obama said that “too many [Americans] still aren't working at all” there was an awkward smattering of claps as members tried to figure out if it sounded like they were cheering the unemployed or unemployment.
One thing was clear: Democrats and Republicans kept a close eye on each other’s choices.
Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa, for example, told msnbc he was heartened that many Republicans didn’t stand up to applaud Obama's call for immigration reform, which he fiercely opposes.
On the other side of the aisle, Congressman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland took note when Republicans failed to stand up for infrastructure investments and a minimum wage hike.
“Time after time tonight you saw Republicans sitting on their hands when the president was calling on the country to move forward,” he told reporters. “I think that will be a theme that’s taken into the next election.”
Tracking the partisan applause is an old tradition, but it’s become a bit more confusing since 2011, however, when a number of Republican and Democratic legislators started a new tradition of sitting together during the speech as a well meaning but ineffective gesture of bipartisanship. Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, who joined Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin for Tuesday’s speech, used the occasion to mock conservative critics on Twitter. West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin wheeled Illinois Republican Mark Kirk, who suffered a stroke in 2012, into the chamber.
Another growing tradition in the Obama era: the State of the Union hyperbolic outburst. The main source of rage this time concerned Obama’s new emphasis on executive orders.
“Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do,” the president said.
On Twitter, Congressman Randy Weber of Texas let loose with a screed against the “Kommandant-in-Chef” shortly before the speech, apparently likening the President of the United States of America to some sort of Nazi restaurateur.
Funny thing about that executive order business, though: Obama said basically the same thing in his State of the Union speech last year about climate change, pledging to “direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future” if Congress “won’t act soon to protect future generations.” George W. Bush had an applause line in his final State of the Union with a new executive order restricting the use of earmarks by Congress.
“It’s nonsense,” Democratic Congressman Sander Levin of Michigan told msnbc. “Presidents have used executive orders for a long time.”
Don’t beat yourself up if you forgot the details of the last speech, highlights of which included a new manufacturing initiative and an executive order (hey, another one!) protecting the US from foreign cyber-attacks. For all the excitement surrounding them, State of the Union speeches are usually quickly forgotten and barely felt in the polls.
One could make a decent case that the opposition party’s State of the Union response has been the more consistently memorable event. This year Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the highest-ranking woman in the House, used her remarks to offer a relatively gentle statement of GOP principles, which she said stood “for an America that is every bit as compassionate as it is exceptional.”
McMorris Rodgers did better than most recent speakers, who tend to gain attention for the wrong reasons.
This time the worst post-speech disaster of the night wasn't one of the many recorded GOP responses. Republican Congressman Michael Grimm of New York threatened to throw a reporter off a balcony after being asked during an interview about an investigation into his campaign’s finances.
“You’re not man enough,” a bullying Grimm told reporter Michael Scotto on camera, according to NY1's transcript. “I’ll break you in half. Like a boy.”
Grimm released a statement shortly after the interview defending his actions, saying he was "extremely annoyed" to be asked about the campaign allegations.
"The reporter knew that I was in a hurry and was only there to comment on the State of the Union, but insisted on taking a disrespectful and cheap shot at the end of the interview because I did not have time to speak off-topic" he said. "I verbally took the reporter to task and told him off, because I expect a certain level of professionalism and respect, especially when I go out of my way to do that reporter a favor."