By Shawn Pasternak
This past Wednesday night, NPR National Political Correspondent, Fox News contributor and, most importantly, Distinguished Fellow of Media and Public Affairs Mara Liasson was a special guest in my Contemporary Political Rhetoric class for a post-State of the Union discussion. Liasson was a particularly interesting guest for the occasion because her pre-State of the Union predictions for the NPR program All Things Considered had been extremely accurate, which made her reasoned analysis of the speech all the more interesting to consider.
Analogizing the State of the Union as the "lyrics" to the "music" of the Inaugural Address, Liasson praised President Obama's speech as "a very good piece of political rhetoric," while explaining two variables that made it unusual: The cornerstones of President Obama's legislative agenda – gun control and immigration – were already being addressed by Congress before he was even inaugurated. Meanwhile, the speech took place against the backdrop of the sequester deadline. As a result, even though the president does not have to worry about re-election anymore and has this "incredible platform" to lay out his agenda, his address couldn't "do anything to change the balance of power." This could be seen, Liasson pointed out, in the speech's emotional final section on gun control. While calling it the "most rhetorically powerful" part of the speech, she observed that his refrain – "They deserve a vote" – was an acceptance of the reality of divided government.
I got to ask Liasson about that; more specifically, what's supposed to happen to proposals like raising the minimum wage and universal pre-school when any piece of legislation requires approval by the Republican House. Liasson offered a practical response, saying, "It's instructive to have it brought up in the Senate or the House and have it voted on so people are on record. Dick Durbin worked for 12 years on the DREAM Act; these things have to start somewhere."
When asked about Sen. Marco Rubio's much-anticipated response, Liasson carefully put his speech in perspective, pointing out that because it was filmed before the State of the Union (a "prebuttal"), there was a natural limit to the amount of substance he could introduce. Instead, his "primary mission" was to introduce himself as a new face for his party, which he did through the use of biographical details in his speech, "not unlike Barack Obama," she concluded.
Unlike the cable news channels, we mostly avoided discussing Sen. Rubio's memorable mid-speech water grab. On a broader note, though, Liasson was asked about the State of the Union's social media presence and what it signifies. Acknowledging that while it has allowed politicians to more easily organize and communicate with their base over the past few years, "what we don't know yet," Liasson said, "is if this will translate into pressure on Congress to pass legislation," a possible – but not inevitable – extension of its influence.
The opportunity to hear an experienced political observer like Mara Liasson, whom I'm typically used to seeing as one of four panelists sharing airtime on Fox News Sunday, talk at length about one of a President's most important speeches – and from a variety of nuanced perspectives – is so rare that I'm beginning to think you can find it only at GW.