Nicholas Kamm/AFP/ Getty Images
President Barack Obama greets Congressional pages after delivering the State of the Union address.
President Barack Obama greets Congressional pages after delivering the State of the Union address. Nicholas Kamm/AFP/ Getty Images
It did not take long for President Obama to hit the high note he wanted in his State of the Union speech. Members of Congress and other grandees of government had scarcely settled into their seats when the president launched into his theme of national unity.
"No matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is part of something greater," the president said. "We are part of the American family...bound together as one people...common hopes...common creed."
In the next few minutes, the president spoke the word "together" five times.
"We will move forward together, or not at all," he said, summing up his appeal for bipartisanship in the coming Congress.
"That's the project the American people want us to work on. Together."
Throughout the speech, the president acknowledged the Republican gains in the November 2010 elections and conceded that his own party could no longer govern alone.
"What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight but whether we can work together tomorrow."
The president was referring to the large number of Democrats and Republicans before him who were literally sitting together, a break with custom that changed the atmosphere of the evening in unpredictable ways. Ever since 1913, when Woodrow Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress segregated by party, most members have stayed with their own kind.
The usual seating in "rooting sections" is just the sort of partisan exercise that seems utterly natural on Capitol Hill but strikes many watching at home as pointless and juvenile.
Year after year, members of the president's party rise and roar approval while the opposition applauds politely — or sits in stony silence. White House speechwriters have become adept at fashioning lines to feed this beast, gauging their success by the number of times the president must stop and wait for the din to die down.
This year would have been no exception, with the emotions of last fall's campaign still running high and the anticipation of the 2012 presidential contest just around the corner. But the shooting of Arizona Democrat Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson Jan. 8 has brought on a season of atypical introspection in Congress. Voices from inside the institution as well as outside have called for lowering the volume and softening the terms of debate. Anger and attitude are now called "vitriol" and are suddenly out of favor.
In this altered atmosphere, the idea of integrated seating for the State of the Union was an instant winner. Everyone saw the opportunity to demonstrate their decency and non-partisanship at once.
We all got a chance to see how many people really have friends "across the aisle" and how many could make such friends on short notice. And if the resulting arrangement seemed stiff and formal, draining the occasion of its verve and effervescence, well, that may just be the price of peace.
It's a price the White House was more than willing to pay. The backdrop of interparty harmony, however momentary, played directly into the president's message for the evening and strategy for the months ahead: a visual metaphor for crossing the divide.
He could apply that spirit to those elements of his program he knows Republicans may support: incentives for business, trade deals, medical malpractice adjustments, stricter management of teachers. From there, it was not too far to talking about the elements of his program he knows Democrats want to pursue, such as protecting the heart of the new health care law and taking another swipe at updating the immigration laws.
He could talk about cutting the deficit and freezing spending and open his arms to welcome all to his side.
The distinct visual memory of this State of the Union is likely to be the members sitting side by side. That becomes a touchstone to which the president may return often as conflicts arise in the months ahead.
Would Obama and the Democrats rather have their big majorities back? Of course they would. But in their absence, the president need not be utterly becalmed. He can set out an achievable agenda that appeals to independents and moves the country toward a smaller government and a lower deficit without causing voters too much immediate pain.
If that dynamic takes hold, as it did for President Bill Clinton and Republican majorities in Congress in 1996, it can lead to a second term for this Democratic president as well. And if the president's attempt at a bipartisan agenda is blocked in Congress, it is at least possible the voters will hold Congress responsible.
Meanwhile, if the economy continues to improve, even marginally, the anger that fueled the Tea Party and the big shift to the right in 2010 will weaken. And the Obama administration can hope its luck holds on the foreign front and no national security crisis intrudes.
This is far from a bold vision or a clarion call to arms. But it constitutes the best hope the Obama administration has of earning a second term, and the president himself seems to think so. That's why he invited the two parties to sit and work "together" last night, and why he hopes a lot of independents were watching.