Obama’s State of the Union found a confident Republican minority, and a discontented Democratic majority

Jon Ward Contributor
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John Boehner rolled his eyes repeatedly and laughed. Michelle Obama glowered at Republicans. A Supreme Court justice shook his head in disagreement with the president.

The House chamber was a study in contrasts and reactions Wednesday night during President Obama’s State of the Union address.

Republicans appeared far more buoyant than Democrats, feeling a sense of renewal after the Democrats defeat in Massachusetts. Almost to a man, the GOP lawmakers were standing in anticipation of Obama’s entrance into the hall. They joked, they laughed. Almost all of the Senate Democrats were seated. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid saw a House lawmaker walk past with his suit jacket pocket askew. Reid reached up from his seat and pulled the pocket flap out.

Many of the Democrats looked shell-shocked, still, after Massachusetts, and the near demise of health-care reform. (After the speech Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat, went so far as to say that his party “really didn’t have all the votes we needed” over the past year, despite having a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority from July until earlier this month).

The most animated of the Republicans was the House leadership: Boehner, Eric Cantor, Thad McCotter and Paul Ryan. Their emotions and opinions were on full display throughout the president’s speech. They looked cocky and eager for a fight, in contrast to the more reserved Senate Republicans.

The House GOP leaders reacted to the president’s words with a mixture of disbelief and barely disguised scorn. Their first applause came several minutes into the speech, when the president mentioned jobs. They rose as a group and roared in quasi-mocking approval, appearing to taunt the president and Democratic lawmakers for spending the last year on health care reform.

Moments earlier, Obama acted surprised that Republicans had not applauded his talk of tax cuts.

“I thought I’d get some applause,” Obama said.

Boehner lifted up his hands palms up, raised his eyebrows, and shrugged, as if to say, “Better luck next time.”

When the president came to health care, he said he was open to ideas other than those that have so far been on the table.

“If anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors, and stop insurance company abuses, let me know,” Obama said.

Boehner raised his right hand above his shoulder.

“Whoa,” he said. “That’s our plan.”

First Lady Michelle Obama did not look pleased. She gestured toward the Republicans as she spoke to the woman to her right.

But House Democrats directed their anger at members of their own party in the Senate. They cheered several times when Obama mentioned bills passed by the House that have stalled in the Senate, on health care, climate change, and a jobs bill.

“Republicans are the opposition but the Senate is the enemy,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner, the liberal firebrand from New York, after the speech.

“The Senate I think was properly chided. They’re not the cooling saucer of our democracy, they’re like the meat locker at this point. I think it was important that the president held that up,” Weiner said.

When Obama called on the Senate to pass the jobs bill already approved by the House, a House lawmaker called out, “Do something!”

The first lady and House Democrats were not the only ones whose discontent was obvious. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito reacted visibly to the president’s criticism of the court’s decision last week remove barriers to large-scale political donations from corporations and unions.

When Obama said the decision will “open the floodgates for special interests,” Alito scowled and shook his head several times. The president’s criticism of the justices was surprising enough, but such a reaction from a justice in the chamber was even more of a shock.

The president scored his first solid punches of the night against his opposition when he whacked Republicans for leaving him with a huge deficit and an economy in tatters. The smirks disappeared from Republican faces. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer stood, clapping loudly and laughing as he looked over the chamber at his GOP colleagues.

But afterward, Rep. Tom Price, the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, said he thought Democrats were “a little more subdued” than last year.

“I think we’re confident that where we stand is with the American people,” Price said.