Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Speaker of the House John Boehner, right,… (Jason Reed / Reuters )
The excitement with which journalists and political pundits anticipated Tuesday's State of the Union address was so unexpectedly poignant it was almost painful to watch. In the days and hours leading up to the speech, conversation and speculation in the media focused less on what the president might say as to whom he was going to say it. Or at least where they would be sitting.
Vice President Joe Biden was not the only one with a new and politically divergent seatmate as the new Speaker of the House, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), replaced Nancy Pelosi (R-San Francisco) as part of the presidential backdrop. Following the quasi-politically motivated shooting in Tucson, some members of Congress agreed to physically cross that infamous aisle, to upset tradition by sitting not in a bloc with their fellow Democrats or Republicans but with members of the opposite party.
Pelosi and Maryland Republican Roscoe Bartlett, New York Democrat Chuck Schumer and Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn, Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry and Arizona Republican John McCain — naming the odd couple pairings became a parlor game. "Date night," CNN's Wolf Blitzer called it several times while MSNBC's Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow wondered how the inevitable standing ovations would look if not coordinated by geography. "Everyone's politics is going to be screwed up," Maddow said, "because now they have to look around to see if they should stand or not."
That the symbolic mingling of the two parties might preface a check on the increasingly rampant partisanship, and provide some meaning for the deaths in Tucson, lent an air of giddy optimism to the occasion that recalled the days following President Obama's election.
If nothing else, it led to a quieter, gentler and more professional State of the Union. Although there was much applause and standing ovations, both partisan and bipartisan aplenty, the new seating arrangement kept the audience in their seats for longer periods of time than previous speeches. This may be deconstructed to mean less support or greater civility, but it certainly made for better television.
During his last State of the Union, Obama seemed unable to utter a single sentence without Pelosi leaping to her feet and dragging all the Democrats with her. Boehner, naturally, was not there to play cheerleader (although he teared up, as is his wont, at least twice, and it's difficult to know what message he was trying to send with the pink tie). The ovations seemed less competitive and organized, and more like expressions of genuine and often shared support.
Which is exactly the tone Obama was going for. Less than one minute in, he referenced the tragedy in Tucson — "We are aware of the empty chair in this chamber and we pray for the health of our colleague and our friend Gabby Giffords" — and acknowledged the often bitter partisanship that has marked his administration as well as the hope that the shooting would "give us pause." But, he added, looking out at his newly configured Congress, "by itself, this simple recognition won't usher in a new era of cooperation. What comes of this moment is up to us. What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow."
It was a masterful cross-court shot, all but requiring that whatever he said next be received in a way that would not tarnish the memory of the people who lost their lives in Tucson and defying any member of Congress who might argue with his call to move forward.
As he moved through his various calls for action, Obama didn't miss a rhetorical beat. He opened with nostalgia, acknowledging a time when an American didn't need a college degree to find a good job that he could keep for life. He referenced Sputnik and Facebook, within moments of each other, proving that he is a president straddling two generations. He spoke of a world where children celebrated not just the winner of the Super Bowl but of the science fair. He followed up his controversial desire to protect the children of illegal immigrants with a promise of high-speed trains.
As any student of Hollywood will tell you, it's always good luck to have a shot or two of a train.
It was not a big-moment speech. Obama's response to the Tucson shooting was a big-moment speech; he was counting on another not being required. Instead, he gave a "Let's get to work" speech, addressing Congress as colleagues and professionals — as people who do not need to stand and clap and cheer for minutes on end to prove their strength or articulate their beliefs.
And the members of Congress, reminded physically that theirs is not the only opinion in the room, seemed, at least for one small hour, ready, willing and able.