WASHINGTON --The State of the Union is remarkable as much for its pomp and symbolism as it is for the policy items it includes (many of which never see the light of day).
Here then, are some of the intriguing sights and sounds I caught Tuesday night, including a budget wonk meeting with a Duck Dynasty star and two rising Senators -- Cory Booker and Marco Rubio -- looking on together and perhaps harboring their own dreams of one day giving the big speech, instead of listening to it.
(We also covered some of the policy debate in our story today on the split reaction to President Obama's call to raise the minimum wage.)
-- Booker, the New Jersey Democrat attending his first State of the Union, sat next to Rubio (R., Fla.). Would have LOVED to have heard that conversation. Two young, dynamic figures, both considered rising voices in their parties with cross-cultural appeal watching a president who was once renowned for those very same qualities.
-- Booker sat on the Republican side of the chamber, between Rubio and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R., N.H.). Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) was also with them. All under 45, they made up what in the Senate could count as the Kids Table. (Sen. John McCain was at the end of the row, perhaps to keep an eye on them). Booker said he was invited by Ayotte to sit on the Republican side.
-- Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) remained seated amid a sea of cheering Democrats who repeatedly sprang up in applause. Toomey sat on the Democratic side of the aisle with his Pennsylvania colleague, Sen. Bob Casey. As is his custom, Toomey even stayed put during many of the non-partisan applause lines that brought members of both parties to their feet. He said there is “too much jack-in-the-box at these events, so I was trying to do my part to scale that back a little bit.”
-- Former New Jersey Sen. Jeff Chiesa, the short-term Republican who was appointed by Gov. Christie and served for a little more than four months, came back for the big day. Chiesa came at the invitation of Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) and was greeted warmly by colleagues. “Had a wonderful time seeing my friends in the Senate,” he wrote in an e-mail. Chiesa served so briefly that he had not had a chance to attend a State of the Union speech.
-- Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wisc.) – who was nominated for vice president and is one of the leading Republican thinkers on the budget – spent a long time chatting up Duck Dynasty star Willie Robertson (presumably they weren’t discussing chained-CPI). Robertson, sporting an American flag bandanna, was a guest of U.S. Rep. Vance McAllister (R., La.). Another conversation I’d pay to hear some of.
-- Prime aisle positions were grabbed by U.S. Reps. Allyson Schwartz (D., Pa.) and Rob Andrews (D., N.J.), each getting precious proximity to the president as he entered the House chamber.
-- The entire chamber cheered when Obama mentioned how in America “the son of a barkeeper” can become speaker of the House (a reference to Republican John Boehner). But several Republicans looked conflicted about the follow up line that “the son of a single mom can be president.” It was as if they wanted to applaud the concept, but not the person it referred to. A few split the difference by clapping, but not very enthusiastically.
-- The same could be said at several points of red-state Democrats who face tough re-election fights and don’t want to be tied too closely to Obama’s policies. Strange job, where your future prospects can depend in some part on how heartily you clap at a speech.
-- The partisan take-away: Democrats loved the message and praised President Obama’s calls for extending unemployment benefits and increasing the minimum wage. Republicans said he needed to find ways to help the economy much more broadly, largely, in their view, by getting out of the way.
“There’s a short term urgency to extend unemployment insurance,” Booker said. “In the long term there’s a lot of things in that speech that I think should be top of the agenda.”
Extending emergency unemployment benefits is an idea that has stalled in the face of Republican opposition – GOP lawmakers are worried about the more than $6 billion cost – but Booker said that after talks early this week he was hopeful that a compromise might be found.
But Republicans said that while Obama talks about economic opportunity, his policies stifle job creation.
“Obamacare, red tape, rules and regulations, uncertainty – nowhere did the President address the challenges Washington creates for small and medium-sized businesses across the country,” U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan (R., Pa.) said in a news release.
On the other side: “The promise of America is equal opportunity. If you work hard you should be able to get ahead,” said U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D., N.J.)
And again from the GOP: “The president has not been focused enough on growing the economy,” said U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent (R., Pa.). Obama “should look at the economic pie as expanding – not one that is finite.”