Some craved words of comfort and a strong signal that the many promises made since a gunman’s rampage stunned the nation just might, in fact, be kept.
Others sought much more than polite talk and a show of etiquette via a bipartisan seating arrangement — a turnaround in tone, yes, but also something tangible: More jobs, less spending, a dramatic course-correction for a country that, for some, seems headed down the wrong path.
The everyday Americans who tuned in for President Obama’s State of the Union address heard, once more, the many calls for compromise and saw political adversaries sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in an unusual demonstration of unity. Some even cheered when the president referred to “the American family” as something more consequential than party or political preference.
And yet there was a common refrain among those who watched Tuesday night from bars and college campuses — even from the living rooms of homes in a town still scarred by tragedy.
Far more important than the words they heard will be what comes next.
“Them sitting together is a fine start but standing together tomorrow would be better, and I have very little confidence that they’ll be standing together tomorrow,” said Ron Canady, a retired telephone communications worker in Tucson.
In ways big and small, this southern Arizona town shared a stage with the president on a night meant to gauge where our nation has been and where it is headed. The address came not three weeks after an alleged assassin opened fire at a congresswoman’s meet-and-greet here, leaving a nation in mourning for the six lives lost and politicians propagandizing a new era of civility.
On Tuesday, the parents of the youngest victim, 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, sat in the chamber of the U.S. House as President Obama spoke of moving “forward together, or not at all.” Also in attendance were one of the doctors and an intern who helped save Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ life. Her place on the House floor was marked by an empty chair. All around it sat members of the Arizona congressional delegation, Republicans and Democrats side-by-side.
Here in Tucson, where memorials to the dead and wounded still cover a street corner outside of Giffords’ office, people watched the speech longing for the same message as much of America: that there is still reason for hope.
Susan Hileman said she found one.
Hileman was holding Christina Green’s hand when the shooting erupted. Though shot three times herself, 58-year-old Hileman is recovering. She watched the speech from her Tucson home, crying when Obama referred to Christina and the camera panned to her parents and brother, seated next to the first lady.
“I love when he talked about our robust democracy — that’s what I took Christina to see that day,” Hileman told The Associated Press. She said the president’s speech — despite her own lingering grief — made her proud to be an American. “I believe wholeheartedly that we can be the kind of nation Christina thought we can be. We need to listen instead of scream at one another.
“We’re all in this together,” she said, adding that, in her view, the state of the union “is better than it has been and not as good as it’s going to be.”
That same uplifting attitude — perhaps unexpected at a time of high unemployment, an ongoing war and persistent debates over everything from health care coverage to the deficit — was shared by others who watched around the country: a student looking for work, an illegal immigrant hoping for citizenship, a retired insurance man who acknowledged “serious problems” but remained “very hopeful.”
Ian Hainline, 21, studies political science at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. In 2008, his father was laid off and his mother was forced to move from part-time to a full-time job to help support him and his sister. Today, Hainline said, both of his parents are working, and he credited the president for helping begin to turn the economy back around.
“I’m sitting here in the midst of job-application season, feeling very confident about my ability to find a job,” said Hainline, who supported Obama in 2008.
Carlos Savio Oliveira lives in Massachusetts but is an illegal immigrant from Brazil, brought to the U.S. by his parents when he was 8. Oliveira recognizes that his future largely depends on the many promises to get Democrats and Republicans to work together. Nevertheless, he said: “I’m hopeful …”
The 22-year-old was elated over Obama’s call for Congress to — “once and for all” — fix illegal immigration. “Wow,” he said. “He nailed it, and it felt good.”
Retired insurance executive Paul Marabella, of Medford, N.J., watched the speech from Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center, a nonpartisan institution dedicated to increasing public understanding of the Constitution. Marabella, 68, lamented the lack of bipartisanship that has plagued Congress, acknowledging “we have some serious problems.”
And yet, after the address, even his tone was a bit brighter. “I feel better about the president, and I’m very hopeful for Congress. Some of them will follow his lead,” he said. “There were some baby steps in terms of sitting together. Now they ought to start walking.”
College student Josh Schmidt dismissed all the talk of newfound civility. He gathered with about a dozen other students in a meeting room at the College of Charleston in Charleston, S.C., to eat pizza and take in the president’s speech. The 19-year-old said this so-called new spirit of compromise, if it really exists, wouldn’t last long.
“We’re not talking about the real critical issue. Talk and debate is good, but we’re not looking at things like gun control,” he said, referring to the Tucson shootings.
That same cynicism was shared by Navy Seaman Ronnie Valentine, who watched the speech with buddies at a Ruby Tuesday’s restaurant outside the gates of Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida. Obama, he said, means well but can only do so much. “There is so much going on behind the scenes,” he said.
Tea party advocates, especially, found little to cheer in Obama’s address. In Indiana, college secretary Monica Boyer hosted a small viewing party for three board members of the tea party group, Kosciusko County Silent No More. She said they all laughed when the president promised more government transparency, and were unimpressed with the gesture of the Democratic and Republican members of Congress sitting together to watch the speech.
“A ploy from the Democrats,” she called the move, saying: “If this is the first step that the Republicans take to working together, I don’t care where they sit, but we will be watching their policies very closely. We did not elect them to compromise. We did not elect them to move to the center. We elected conservatives …
“So if they just join hands and sing Kumbaya,” she said, “that will be the last year we will have faith in the Republican Party.”
Still others said they were waiting for Obama to back up his “centrist”-sounding proposals with action — namely through cuts in federal spending.
“I want to see him actually reduce spending, not just freeze it,” said Kenneth Cobb, a tea party organizer from Bemidji, Minn. Cobb said he’s all for civil, levelheaded dialogue, but not at the expense of the right to speak out against a federal government he sees as spending itself into a “slavery to debt.”
“You can still be civil without compromising on principles,” he said.
In Tucson, some 20 people gathered at Ron Canady’s home for a viewing party. Like other Americans, they wanted to hear about jobs and health care and the war in Afghanistan. But more so, they wanted their president to reaffirm his commitment to unifying Congress — and the country. When the president spoke of Giffords, and her vacant seat suddenly popped up on the TV screen, several stopped sipping wine and wiped away tears.
Ron and his wife, Pat, consider Giffords a friend and sometimes volunteered at events like the one on Jan. 8 that turned into a bloodbath. A signed photograph of the congresswoman and Pat, framed the day before the shooting, hangs in their home office.
Their two vastly differing views on the state of this union may best reflect the conflicting hopes, and fears, of a country still struggling to recover from the many tough times of the past, the tragedy in Tucson being just one.
Said Ron, the self-described “eternal pessimist” of the family: “I think we’re in horrible shape, and not just economically and socially. We’re two or three different countries under the same flag.”
Pat, however, refused to lose faith.
“I’m hopeful for our country to get back on track because if we don’t start coming together, we’re going to fall apart,” she said. “My prayer is the situation in Tucson will help bring that about in the next two years. Maybe this is an awakening for the country.”
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Russell Contreras in Boston; Kathy Matheson in Philadelphia; Bruce Smith in Charleston, S.C; Melissa Nelson in Pensacola, Fla.; Rick Callahan in Indianapolis; and Trevor Born in Minneapolis.