Obama’s State of the Union Almost Upstaged by Dorner Shootout

The State of the Union had to compete with a violent confrontation in California. By Howard Kurtz.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty

President Obama used his State of the Union to pivot back to the economy, saying he wants to protect “senior citizens” and “working families” from bearing the brunt of budget-cutting, but the Washington ritual was nearly overshadowed by a California crime drama.

By the time Obama called for generating enough jobs for “a thriving middle class” on Tuesday night, he found himself sharing the television stage as the cable news networks blanketed a shootout at Big Bear with accused cop-killer Christopher Dorner that left one police officer dead and another wounded. It was a split-screen moment reminiscent of Bill Clinton delivering his 1997 State of the Union during the verdict in O.J. Simpson’s civil trial—and all the more surreal since Obama talked about gun violence after the Big Bear cabin in which Dorner was hiding went up in flames.

Still, the president delivered a well-paced, energetic, and substantive address. And while he glided across other pressing issues—notably immigration, climate change, and Afghanistan—its emotional heart was an appeal to viewers who are far more concerned about their bank accounts.

In a melding of his messages on the economy and equality, and a not-so-subtle reference to gay rights, the president said: “It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country—the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love.”

While avoiding confrontational language, Obama laid down a marker for the Republicans: “We can’t ask senior citizens and working families to shoulder the entire burden of deficit reduction while asking nothing more from the wealthiest and most powerful. We won’t grow the middle class simply by shifting the cost of health care or college onto families that are already struggling, or by forcing communities to lay off more teachers, cops, and firefighters.” At times it seemed like a replay of the 2012 campaign.

But the president made only the briefest of bows toward “modest” Medicare changes, entitlement reform, and tax reform.

After having won higher taxes on the wealthy after his reelection, Obama had little to say about specific spending cuts in his first second-term address to Congress. But in a nod to GOP criticism, the president insisted that under previous agreements with the Hill, “nothing I’m proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime.”

That issue formed the core of the Republican response. Sen. Marco Rubio told Obama rhetorically that he was defending his “working class” neighbors in Florida: “The tax increases and the deficit spending you propose will hurt middle class families. It will cost them their raises. It will cost them their benefits. It may even cost some of them their jobs…More government isn’t going to help you get ahead—it’s going to hold you back.”

The president repeatedly returned to jobs, proposing a “Fix-It-First” program focused on repairs to 70,000 crumbling bridges and other infrastructure, and to attract private capital through a Partnership to Rebuild America.

But if Obama was advocating “smarter government,” not “bigger government,” he certainly wasn’t pushing for smaller government. Many of his proposals carried a price tag, such as one to make “high-quality preschool” available to every child in America. And every few paragraphs he slipped in another proposal, such as incentives to businesses for hiring the long-term unemployed and raising the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour.

As was leaked on Tuesday morning, he declared that “by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.” Obama announced that 34,000 American troops will come home over the next year.

The president waited until the final portion of his speech to make a pitch for a “pathway to earned citizenship” for illegal immigrants, coupled with tougher border enforcement. But he made gun control the emotional finale, citing the tragic murder of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old Chicago girl who came to his inauguration last month.

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With the wounded former congresswoman from Arizona in the House chamber, the president said:

“Gabby Giffords deserves a vote.

“The families of Newtown deserve a vote.

“The families of Aurora deserve a vote.”

Obama may not get that legislation past the opposition of the NRA, but he signaled that he will go down fighting.

The president’s challenge heading into the speech was to break through the media static just weeks after his inaugural speech. That task was further complicated by the death of Dorner, confirmed by police before Obama finished speaking, as the smoke from his fiery hideout could obscure the second-day coverage of the president's address.