Inside the Beltway: The State of the Union spectacle begins

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It is political theater at its most frantic: the State of the Union address — SOTU in popular parlance — may now stand for “so too” much.

The annual rite is amplified by shrill news coverage and endlessly punctuated by partisan applause, planned distractions, mystifying protocols and trite insider behavior. The speech-as-spectacle has strayed from the austere path recommended in Article II, Section 3, of the U.S. Constitution, which advises that the president “shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

Yes, well. It’s oh, so much more these days.

The masters of showmanship over at the White House are using the speech Tuesday night to drum up the Democratic cause, offering an “enhanced broadcast” and “exclusive graphics” to those who sign up for it. “Are you in?” the White House asks.

Speechwriters also offered a coyly blurred image of the marked-up address via Instagram. There could be a reason for showbiz-style audience engagement here, though. Mr. Obama drew 52.4 million viewers during his first address in 2009. Last year, the audience was 33.3 million.

One Texas Republican imagined what the prime-time performance would entail. “I’m having visions of going to the circus and seeing clowns juggling things on fire,” sighed Sen. Ted Cruz during a radio appearance with host Glenn Beck.

All the trappings aside, length seems to matter to Democrats. Consider that Ronald Reagan’s annual addresses averaged 40 minutes each, according to a count from the University of California. Presidents George H.W. Bush averaged 45 minutes, Bill Clinton averaged 75 minutes, George W. Bush 52 minutes and Mr. Obama 64 minutes.

But the Grand Old Party has some grand stuff planned, too. There’s a trio of responses to the speech: An official version from Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, a tea party response from Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and a zesty rebuttal from Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, delivered via email and social media.

Will Americans watch the big show? One pollster says so: 67 percent of U.S. voters will likely watch Mr. Obama’s address— including 53 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of Democrats, according to a Quinnipiac University survey released Wednesday.

REPUBLICANS REVEAL SOME INNER METTLE

Republicans have begun to retake their “brand” and push back against Democratic claims that the GOP is conducting a “war on women.” A resolution before the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting this week stressed that “silence” on pro-life issues only allows canny Democrats to persuade key voters — women, Hispanics and young adults — that Republicans are archaic scoundrels.

But wait. The Democrats are now pushing back against the GOP pushback. And making a little money besides.

“Since we alerted you to Republicans’ revolting anti-choice agenda, your response has been stunning! Grass roots Democrats are standing up all across the country and declaring that they’ve had enough,” says a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee email requesting donations against the “Republicans’ anti-woman agenda.”

The group gets personal with House Speaker John A. Boehner, adding, “Let’s show Boehner that there are consequences for Republicans’ unrelenting war on women.”

THE POLARIZED VORTEX

Forget the polar vortex. It’s the polarized vortex that should worry the White House these days. Based on a tracking poll of 175,000 people, Gallup reveals that the partisan divide in President Obama’s favorability ratings is, well, stunning. Currently, 82 percent of Democrats give him the thumbs up, compared with 11 percent of Republicans. Four of Mr. Obama’s years in office rank as the most polarized on record, Gallup says, and they have been tallying the dismal results since the Eisenhower era.

Things were divided during President George W. Bush’s tenure as well. Four of his years in office rank in the top 10 most polarized years, the pollster says.

“Obama is on course to have the most politically polarized approval ratings of any president, with an average 69-point gap during his presidency, a full eight points higher than was the case with Bush,” says analyst Jeffrey Jones. “There have always been party differences in presidential ratings, but these have become more extreme in recent decades, averaging 34 points before Reagan’s presidency and 58 points after.”

But it appears that polarized opinion is now a given.

“Both Obama and Bush made overtures toward bringing politically divided Americans together, but the evidence suggests neither succeeded,” Mr. Jones notes. “That said, it is not clear that presidents will be very successful in gaining significant support from the opposition party, regardless of what they do in the current political environment.”

AND THE REASON FOR POLARIZATION

Well, one has to blame somebody. “There is a Republican base of voters for whom compromise with me is a betrayal,” President Obama says in a New Yorker interview released Thursday.

“And that — more than anything, I think — has been the challenge that I’ve needed to overcome. Another way of putting it, I guess, is that the issue has been the inability of my message to penetrate the Republican base so that they feel persuaded that I’m not the caricature that you see on Fox News or Rush Limbaugh, but I’m somebody who is interested in solving problems and is pretty practical, and that, actually, a lot of the things that we’ve put in place worked better than people might think.”

FOR THE LEXICON

“Trailergate”

— From Fort Worth Star Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy, referring to Texas state senator and gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis and her embellished biography.

“Wendy Davis is bigger than Texas now, and so are her mistakes,” Mr. Kennedy explains. “If Republicans can’t keep their hold on Texas, they’ll never win back the White House. So every Davis misstep or misfire becomes early national campaign fodder for 2016.”

WEEKEND REAL ESTATE

For public auction: 22,598-square-foot “ultra modern home” on Lake Minnetonka, Minn.; built by a record producer in 1991. Five bedrooms, nine baths, 296 feet of lake front, extensive landscaping, floor-to-ceiling custom windows, 12-car garage, 14-seat movie theater, elevator, two nanny-care suites, a two-story master suite, indoor and outdoor pools, gym, game room, gated entry. Opening bid rumored to be $3.8 million, through HudsonandMarshall.com.

POLL DU JOUR

74 percent of U.S. voters say they feel that the nation is “still in a recession.”

69 percent say their friends and family do not resent people who make a lot of money.

62 percent accept the fact that some people make more than others because “that’s how our economy works.”

21 percent say this phenomenon “stinks” and 13 percent say it “makes them angry.”

55 percent say cutting federal taxes and reducing regulations will help the economy.

55 percent say that giving unemployment benefits for those unemployed “a long time” discourages them from finding work.

12 percent agree that “if someone becomes successful and makes a lot of money, it means that someone else has to make less money.”

Source: A Fox News poll of 1,010 registered U.S. voters conducted Jan. 19-21.

Complaints and chit-chat to jharper@washingtontimes.com. Follow her at twitter.com/harperbulletin.

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