Obama's address: more policy speech than pep rally

WASHINGTON Wed Jan 26, 2011 12:42am EST

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A shout of "You lie!" from an angry Republican congressman interrupted U.S. President Barack Obama's major speech to Congress on healthcare reform in September 2009.

If that was a low point in the squabbling between Obama and Republicans, Tuesday's State of the Union address was notable for a respectful, almost genial reception.

Obama peppered his remarks with business-friendly proposals designed to appeal to rival Republicans, as well as a few jokes, and generic appeals to U.S. patriotism that won applause from members of both parties.

"As contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn't a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth," Obama said, in one of the biggest applause lines cheered by both parties.

Many politicians have called for more civility in public discourse since Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords was badly wounded in a shooting attack in Arizona earlier this month that killed six people. The suspected shooter's motive for the rampage is not known, but some commentators have said it might have been related to heated political rhetoric.

Obama's eulogy two weeks ago for victims of the Tucson attack won glowing reviews and he seemed to regain some of the oratorical footing that had helped propel him to the White House, after sometimes struggling to connect with Americans.

Obama continued the tone of his Tucson address on Tuesday.

"Amid all the noise and passions and rancor of our public debate, Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater -- something more consequential than party or political preference," Obama said.

Many of the lawmakers, cabinet members and other dignitaries in the audience wore black-and-white lapel ribbons in honor of Giffords and the other Arizona victims.

SITTING TOGETHER

In the spirit of civility, dozens of legislators broke recent tradition for the annual State of the Union address -- sitting in a mix of Democrats and Republicans rather than on either side of the aisle.

Joe Wilson, the South Carolina Republican whose "You lie!" shout 1-1/2 years ago prompted a partisan debate on incivility, himself sat on the Democratic side with two Democrats.

The seating arrangements seemed to contribute to the respectful reception.

Facing a record $1.3 trillion budget deficit and 9.4 percent unemployment, the atmosphere was more policy speech than partisan pep rally as Obama -- who has been steering a more centrist course since his Democratic Party took a hiding in November elections -- spoke of tough choices in a tone that was almost subdued.

State of the Union addresses are usually interrupted repeatedly by competing ovations.

"I think it was much harder this time to see which side was sitting glumly on their hands while the other leaped to its feet... There was a lot less theatrics in the chamber this time," said Matt Bennett, vice president for public affairs at Third Way, a centrist Washington think tank that proposed the idea that legislators from different parties sit together.

There were a few incidents of partisanship as usual.

Obama got laughter from both parties when he joked that he'd "heard rumors" some people don't like his healthcare law.

But Republicans -- who voted last week in the House to repeal the healthcare measure -- sat stony-faced and quiet, and Democrats leaped to their feet, as Obama praised it.

(Additional reporting by Tim Ryan; Editing by Frances Kerry)