The State of the Union address has a reputation for inclusion—the Supreme Court, the entire Cabinet and every member of Congress gathers to hear the president say something about everything he can think of. With Democrats in power, however, Republicans in Washington had reason to feel left out. Nevertheless, conservatives found plenty to celebrate during Barack Obama’s first state of the union address. Massachusetts Senator-elect Scott Brown had just punctured the Democratic super-majority in the Senate. Fat cat campaign contributions were back in vogue—thanks to the Supreme Court. And where Air America Radio, the left’s answer to Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, had just filed for bankruptcy, the Daily Caller, a news Web site founded by conservative Tucker Carlson as the right’s answer to the liberal Huffington Post, was launched days prior.
Fresh off the best week for the GOP perhaps since “Mission Accomplished,” the Caller summoned the GOP glitterati to the trendy bar George, in tony Georgetown, to see what Obama had on tap. Among the crowd of budding political analysts, “brand ambassadors” for event sponsor Imperial Vodka handed out drink coupons wearing French maid outfits—white lace gloves, midriff-baring tops and miniskirts. Early on, the announcer yelled that the room filled with blonde blowouts and bow ties would be drinking to “our country, drinking and the Daily Caller.” Cheers went up from the crowd.
Each one of the four plasma screen TVs in the bar were tuned into Fox News. The crowd cheered when the network’s newest news analyst—former Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin—appeared on the split screen with serious hair and serious things to say. (Though no one could hear them above the constant chatter and white noise of the bar.)
Conservative Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform had composed a bingo scorecard for Obama’s address. The Caller did so as well. The announcer, an actor on The Tony Kornheiser Show (he plays Nigel, a British lackey), called out the rules: “If Obama says: ‘urgent,’ ‘politics,’ ‘America,’ ‘this will not be easy,’ ‘I'm on your side,’ ‘health care,’ ‘deficit’ or ‘jobs,’” then everyone in the George was “required by state law to take a drink.”
Simple, right? No. There was more. “If Obama says 'bipartisan,' the back section of the bar yells 'no' and the front section yells 'yes.'” And if the nine justices of the Supreme Court don't stand for a particular Democratic talking point? “Take a drink and then recite your Miranda rights,” yelled the announcer. If the Fox News camera ever panned to Rep. Joe Wilson, then the crowd should shout, “You lie!” And lastly, if the president mentions “Wall Street,” the young conservatives in the crowded bar were given leave to “punch the guy to your right.”
Thankfully, no violence—only punditry—ensued. Alex Pappas, an off-duty reporter for the Daily Caller, set the stakes for Obama’s 70-minute address: “The big question is whether health care can go off. Health care is the big issue that's supposed to describe Obama's legacy.”
But politics were more important than policy for some attendees. Just before the speech began, one young man whispered to a friend, “Oh, look at his suit! He's such a douchebag”—a clear dig at the president. But when Obama took command of the podium in front of Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, the crowd, which could easily be described as right-leaning, cheered loudly. The bar was immediately shushed, and Obama began.
It only took about two minutes of speechmaking for a face in the crowd to yell, “Show us your tits!” Folks laughed for a short time and then turned their attention back to the flat screen, where Obama was outlining his plans for job creation, fiscal discipline, and health care reform.
When the president spoke about cutting taxes, the GOP crowd didn't say much—mirroring the lack of applause in the actual Congress. Environmental talk didn't get any support, either. When the president criticized Republicans for “saying no” and failing to show leadership, one young man at the bar gave Obama's TV reflection the middle finger.
Much of the Republican political strategy during the Obama era has been to saddle Democrats with the full weight of Bush administration damages to the American economy, infrastructure and foreign policy. The extent to which Obama—the onetime outsider from Chicago—has become a figurehead for what ails America was on display at the George. When the president chastised “Washington” for being “unable or unwilling to solve our problems,” the crowd turned almost immediately. “It's you!” yelled a disgruntled man with a beer in his hand. “Like you're not part of Washington,” added another.
Still, some independent-leaning Washingtonians came to George with an open mind. “I like the part when he talked about student loans,” said Sheryl Burstein, a speech pathologist with undergraduate and graduate student loans, “because it greatly improves my everyday life.” Jim Carafano, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, was unethused. “Pop quiz: Which State of the Union address changed the course of America?” A reporter answered: “None?” And Carafano agreed.
But despite partisan differences, it appeared as if the crowd inside George agreed with the larger crowd inside the Capitol—both of which cheered and applauded when Obama said, “I have never been more hopeful about America's future than today.”
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.