Thursday, January 29, 2015

Ten Philly, NJ observations on the State of the Union

Are local Republicans warming up to President Obama? Did anyone want to stand next to Sen. Bob Menendez as he faces a cascade of ethics questions? Who had the best facial expression of the night? What was most divisive and what was the biggest surprise?

Ten Philly, NJ observations on the State of the Union

Are local Republicans warming up to President Obama? Did anyone want to stand next to Sen. Bob Menendez as he faces a cascade of ethics questions? Who had the best facial expression of the night? What was most divisive and what was the biggest surprise?

Answers below in 10 Philly and Jersey-based observations on Tuesday’s the State of the Union speech. (Many of which are culled from my Twitter account - which you should hop on if you don’t like waiting for such pithy, searing insight).

1. A kinder, gentler Toomey? Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey met a few home state reporters after the speech for an immediate reaction. I expected hot fire from the fiscally conservative Republican.

What we got was a surprising praise for the president.

“Thematically there were some encouraging elements. I was glad that the president really zeroed in on economic growth and job creation and spoke specifically about deficit reduction including his willingness to look at some spending reforms, which are badly needed. Those were encouraging,” Toomey said. “I disagree with the idea that we need to raise taxes yet again, that’s not a solution for this problem.”

When I asked about specific critiques he might have, Toomey said there were “lots and lots” of items in the speech he disagreed with, but quickly pivoted back to this: “I’m going to continue to look for opportunities where we can work together.”

This from a man who leads the Senate Republicans’ conservative steering committee.

Toomey, though, has spent the first few weeks of the new session of Congress touting bipartisan bills he is co-sponsoring. A theory: after spending his first two years in the Senate hammering a president seeking re-election, Toomey knows that the shoe is now on the other foot. He’s likely to be a 2016 target for Democrats, and in a state that is trending more and more blue in presidential years (as 2016 will be) maybe it doesn’t hurt to ease up on the president once in awhile.

2. Divided GOP: What made Toomey’s largely-supportive reaction so surprising was the chorus of condemnation for Obama coming from Philadelphia-area Republicans, particularly on taxes and spending.

Here was a release from Pat Meehan, Congressman from DelCo: “I fear that the agenda (Obama) laid out will just lead to more of the same: more debt, more regulations, more government, and fewer jobs.” And this was in a release from Rep. Jon Runyan, of Burlington County: “the President continued to focus on increasing taxes and spending while ignoring the nation’s debt and deficit crisis.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, a Bucks County Republican, thought Obama “said a lot of the right things,” praising in particular the president’s message on trying to rebuild manufacturing.

Interestingly, Toomey and Fitzpatrick’s generally positive reactions came in interviews after the speech, while the critical comments were in prepared press releases that were almost certainly drafted in advance (a necessity given the timing of the speech and newspaper deadlines).

It could be a coincidence, but it does make me wonder if Republicans were preparing to hear one thing, and firing up their responses, and then heard something that they found more agreeable in the actual address.

3. Most divisive issue. That said, it was clear that there was little agreement on climate change (with one caveat: I had to leave before the portion on gun control to prepare for interviews so I did not see that response first-hand). But the long section on the climate drew rousing applause from Democrats and near-universal, stony silence from the GOP.

4. Climate change did prompt the best facial expression of the night, though. When the president mentioned a John McCain bill on the issue, Obama’s former rival offered one of the best “I’m-smiling-but-I’d-really-like-to-punch-you-for-that” smiles I’ve seen in a long time. (OK, this wasn't local, but I wanted to get it in).

5. A lonely speech for Bob Menendez. Fellow Democrats have been supportive of New Jersey’s Menendez as he faces a series of ethics questions, but few were rushing to get close to him last night during the socializing before the speech. Once he got to his seat Menendez was left standing alone, watching others file in. As others lawmakers shook hands and struck up conversations with Supreme Court justices and cabinet officials, Menendez just watched, and occasionally checked his watch.

When the speech began, just one seat separated Menendez from fellow Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, who chairs the ethics committee. Awkward much?

6. The surprise of the night, for me anyway, was shortly before the speech when the press staff over at the House asked for our attention so they could show us a video on how to use escape hoods in the event of a biological attack.

Never had to do that before. I was too far back to see the video, but the idea reminded me of the safety instructions we all get when boarding planes.

This got a lot of reaction on Twitter, including lots of people who were happy to tell me how delighted they’d be if the media was killed. But I wonder how those same folks would feel if they knew that Ted Nugent, who was also in the audience, would be collateral damage?

7. Obama encourages Democrats on guns. There was obviously a lot for Democrats to love in the speech, but the part locals seemed to respond to most powerfully was his call for a vote on gun control laws.

“If children have to face down assault weapons, members of congress should be able to face up to a vote,” said Philly U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah. “I thought that was the most poignant moment of the speech.”

New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg said, “Obama's call to pass gun safety legislation, including my effort to keep super-sized ammunition magazines out of our neighborhoods, was an especially important, timely message.”

“Super-size” magazines are a new term, for me at least. Let’s see if it catches on among gun control advocates as they try to push through a high-capacity magazine ban.

8. Best seats in the House: Among local lawmakers, South Jersey Rep. Rob Andrews and MontCo’s Allyson Schwartz had the best spots as the president walked down the aisle. Andrews got himself a handshake-point-wink combo from the president. Obama gave Schwartz the double-handed-handshake.

9. Democratic grab bag. Outside of guns, Democrats saw lots to be happy about. Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey loved hearing about an emphasis on manufacturing, saying “if we have more manufacturing we’re going to innovate more and if we innovate more we’ll be ahead of the world, that’s where we’ve always had our edge.”

Schwartz and Fattah both lauded Obama’s emphasis on education and NJ Rep. Frank Pallone praised the call for increasing the minimum wage. There was something for everyone, at least everyone who is a Democrat.

10. Best local line. The Morning-Call’s Colby Itkowitz asked Toomey about his standing applause, or lack thereof, during the speech. Said Toomey: “I’m not that big on the jack-in-the-box thing.”

Jonathan Tamari
About this blog

Jonathan Tamari is the Inquirer’s Washington correspondent. He writes about the lawmakers, politics and policy that affect Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Tamari previously covered the Philadelphia Eagles and the NFL. Before that he worked in Trenton, reporting on the characters and color of New Jersey state government. He lives in Washington.

Reach Jonathan at jtamari@phillynews.com.

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