Obama and Nikki Haley: in dueling speeches, a common message

At a time when fiery rhetoric appears to be ascendant, both President Obama and GOP responder Nikki Haley called for tolerance and lowered voices.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
President Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington Tuesday.
Randall Hill/Reuters
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who delivered the Republican rebuttal to President Obama's State of the Union speech Tuesday, speaks at the 2016 Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity in Columbia, S.C., Saturday.

On State of the Union night, an extraordinary thing happened: The Democratic president and the Republican tasked with responding to his address issued the same message.

On matters of policy, from the economy to education to terrorism, President Obama and Gov. Nikki Haley (R) of South Carolina predictably disagreed. But on the broader issue of the state of public discourse, and America’s increasingly diverse identity, they could have finished each other’s sentences.

Both, in their own way, implicitly went after the loudest voice in the political arena: Donald Trump, front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, whose calls to ban Muslims from entering the country and harsh rhetoric against illegal immigrants have dismayed both Democrats and the Republican establishment.

But it wasn’t just about Mr. Trump. In their common plea for civility and cooler heads, Mr. Obama and Governor Haley each called on other forces to pay heed – the parties, the public, and, by implication, the media.

The optics of the night’s two speakers – America’s first black president and the Indian-American female governor of a Southern state – could not have been more profound.

“Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get all the attention,” Obama said.

“As frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background,” Obama continued.  “We can’t afford to go down that path.”

Haley, like Obama, struck a hopeful tone about the future of the country, even as she called for a new direction this November. Then she turned her sights on the public discourse, speaking for a party anxious about growing its appeal beyond older white voters.

“Today, we live in a time of threats like few others in recent memory. During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” said Haley, who has been touted as a possible vice presidential candidate.

Later in the speech, she returned to the theme.

“Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference. That's just not true,” said Haley, speaking from her state capital, Columbia. “Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume. When the sound is quieter, you can actually hear what someone else is saying. And that can make a world of difference.”

Haley spoke of her upbringing in rural South Carolina as the child of Indian immigrants, in a family that “didn’t look like our neighbors” but believed in the American dream all the same. Then she recounted the tragedy that took place in her state last June, the mass shooting of churchgoers in Charleston. 

The shooter, she said, didn’t look or act like them, but still they prayed with him. Then he began shooting, taking “nine incredible souls.”

“Our state was struck with shock, pain and fear, but our people would not allow hate to win,” Haley said. “We didn't have violence, we had vigils. We didn't have riots, we had hugs. We didn't turn against each other's race or religion, we turned toward God, and to the values that have long made our country the freest and greatest in the world.”

Randall Hill/Reuters
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who delivered the Republican rebuttal to President Obama's State of the Union speech Tuesday, speaks at the 2016 Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity in Columbia, S.C., Saturday.

Haley’s handling of the tragedy – which led to the historic lowering of the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state capitol – won her national notice and growing talk that she could wind up the GOP ticket, depending on who wins the nomination.

Charleston was a breakout moment for Obama, too. In his eulogy for the victims, the president broke into song, leading the congregation in a rendition of “Amazing Grace” and producing one of the iconic moments of his presidency.

Tuesday was also a night for mea culpas. For Obama, it was a moment to take blame upon himself for failing to deliver on his promise of national unity.

“It's one of the few regrets of my presidency – that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” Obama said.

“I have no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I'll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office,” he continued.

For Haley, the mea culpa came in the form of a scolding aimed at her own party.

“While Democrats in Washington bear much responsibility for the problems facing America today, they do not bear it alone. There is more than enough blame to go around,” she said.

“We as Republicans need to own that truth. 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.”

Whether these two speeches make a difference will depend on how leaders of both parties going forward handle their opportunities. Obama has another year in office, and while he went light on proposals for the Republican-controlled Congress, he could have some surprises in store.

Ditto the Republicans, who recently installed a new speaker, Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin. On Tuesday night, Obama spoke of Speaker Ryan’s interest in tackling poverty, and said he would “welcome a serious discussion about strategies we can all support.” The president mentioned a proposal to expand tax cuts for low-income workers who don’t have children.

Whether Obama and Ryan can work together on issues beyond those already on the agenda remains to be seen. In a presidential election year, the odds can be long. But in Tuesday’s calls for cooler rhetoric, and more bipartisanship, Obama and Haley may have opened a door.

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