Rob Burgess

If you search online for President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union speech, delivered Jan. 12, you could just watch it. But the footage I saw was a feed from the Public Broadcasting System, which showed what happened in the House Chamber before, during and after the speech. What occurred on stage was only part of the show.

Seated behind the podium, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, and Vice President Joe Biden read into the microphone names of people from each chamber who would escort the president to the chamber. We watch Biden and Ryan talk soundlessly in front of the flag. Biden makes hand gestures. Ryan nods. This must be somewhat awkward for them, as they previously clashed during the Oct. 11, 2012, vice presidential debate.

From the back, a woman in a blue dress appears. She announces various groups in turn, including the Supreme Court justices, all in robes. First lady Michelle Obama makes her entrance from the back in an orange dress with no official announcement.

The president’s Cabinet is announced. This year, there were two designated survivors. These are chosen members of government who stay away during the speech so in case of some terrible event where everyone in the chamber is killed, at least someone will be left to become president. This time it is Senate President Pro Tempore Orrin Grant Hatch, R-Utah, and Jeh Johnson, Homeland Security secretary.

Paul Irving, House sergeant at arms, appears to announce Obama. It’s all about entrances in this game, and it takes Obama several minutes to get to the podium due to the kissing of cheeks and shaking of hands. The announcers, meanwhile, are left with little to do and revert to covering the event like an awards ceremony. They start talking about people’s outfits. Lots of familiar faces are in the crowd including: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts; Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont; Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona; Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina. During the speech, Biden joins the Democrats in standing ovations several times. Ryan sits still. Ryan applauds for nothing. Still, Obama got off some pretty good lines:

• “For this final one, I’m going to try to make it a little shorter. I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa.”

• “Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.”

• “It’s not too much of a stretch to say that some of the only people in America who are going to work the same job, in the same place, with a health and retirement package for 30 years are sitting in this chamber.”

• “It has been difficult to find agreement over the last seven years.”

• “Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there.”

In the past, most State of the Union speeches weren’t speeches at all but written reports. What we have now has so much pageantry to it. The clapping split right down party lines, even for statements that shouldn’t be controversial. If everyone’s going to treat this like a sporting event, they need pompoms out there.


South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley delivered the official Republican response. She referenced her state’s Confederate flag controversy right away. She acknowledges it is Obama’s last State of the Union, but manages to insult his legacy anyway. She says she wants to address the public’s fed-up mood.

Remarkably, she has heaps of blame to lay at the feet of members of her own party.

“We as Republicans need to own that truth,” she said. “We need to recognize our contributions to the erosion of the public trust in America’s leadership. We need to accept that we’ve played a role in how and why our government is broken. And then we need to fix it.”

She then implores her party members to turn away from the current Republican presidential front-runners.

“During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” she said. “We must resist that temptation.”

Perhaps this is a vice presidential audition tape for her.

Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at or on Twitter at

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