Could the GOP Have Given a Better Response to Obama’s SOTU?

Watching Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) give the Republican State of the Union response was almost everything one could hope for. Almost. She didn’t mention her history with hog castration for this particular public appearance, which was disappointing — especially given she played broken record to a number of other farm town anecdotes, which were fun. “As a young girl, I plowed the fields of our family farm, I worked construction with my dad. To save for college, I worked the morning biscuit line at Hardee’s,” said Ernst.

Hearing about biscuit making in and how much she loves Iowa is almost comfortingly consistent, like waiting for Joe Biden to say something not-quite-appropriate. And while in part it may be this sort of small-town country charm, relatability, and military patriotism that helped get her elected, good on camera she is not. It takes a special sort of skill to speak to a camera — likely reading off a teleprompter — and not sound overly canned and fake.

Ernst has not perfected this skill yet, but she’s new to the Senate, and one’s ability to avoid the robot speech pitfall isn’t really an indicator of lawmaking ability, so let’s not be too hard on her. No, what we can be somewhat harsh about is the content of that speech, riddled with forced inflection. It covers all the bases one would expect to be covered on the right. She mentions “cancelled healthcare” and “higher insurance bills” right off the bat, throwing in “failed policies like Obamacare” for anyone who missed her point. “We’ll also keep fighting to repeal and replace a healthcare law that’s hurt so many hardworking families,” said Ernst. “We’ll work to correct executive overreach. We’ll propose ideas that aim to cut wasteful spending and balance the budget, with meaningful reforms, not higher taxes like the president has proposed.” In other words, a solid two minutes of her approximately nine-minute video was Iowa reminiscence, a solid two to four targeted Obama or his administration’s policies, and of course, she’d barely finished with Obamacare before moving into the topic we’ve been hearing so much about: Keystone.

Both the Republican response and President Obama’s State of the Union contained a great deal of repetition, a number of hints and nudges about policy and reform that’s been beaten into the ground and is highly unlikely to go anywhere during Obama’s time left in office. The silver lining was one of the few things both mentioned, and seemed likeliest on which to find common ground.

“Republicans think tax filing should be easier for you, not just the well connected, so let’s iron out loopholes to lower rates and create jobs, not pay for more government spending,” said Ernst. Of course, this is in part referring to some of his education policy goals, which Republicans claim would increase taxes or require government spending. But, that aside, she goes on to say that “the president has already expressed some support for these kinds of ideas. We’re calling on him now to cooperate to pass them,” adding that “You’ll see a lot of serious work in this new congress.”

President Obama followed a similar pattern, putting his digs in where necessary, vowing not to give up on certain policy agendas, and then emphasizing that work must get done and that there is common ground, which needs work. Common ground appears, tentatively, to include reforming the tax code, keeping jobs in the United States, supporting the U.S. military, cyber attack prevention and security, and working to limit Iran’s nuclear program.Ernst and Obama both also mentioned conflicts in social policy. Obama addressed the changes nationwide to marriage equality legislation in states — the Supreme Court’s ruling is upcoming. He also briefly mentioned racial equality in law enforcement. Ernst for her part brought up anti-abortion efforts, saying “we’ll defend life, because protecting our most vulnerable is an important measure of any society.”

The rhetoric of the two talks split particularly on opportunity, and how to improve it. Obama emphasized the need to give Americans of all backgrounds and situations as much help and as many opportunities as possible, so that with hard work they have the ability to improve their lives. This means education, lower taxes, equal pay for women, more affordable child care, and a number of other practical measures. Ernst emphasized that “you don’t need to come from wealth or privilege to make a difference,” and that “you just need the freedom to dream big, and a whole lot of hard work.” Someone, somewhere, struggling to make ends meet, put food on the table, and pay for an education is scoffing.

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