published Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

Tennessee Republicans don't like what they hear from Obama


by Chris Carroll
President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington.
President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

  • photo
    U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann of Chattanooga speaks at the Doubletree Hotel in Chattanooga.
    Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

WASHINGTON — Politically and physically, Tennessee Republicans shied away from President Barack Obama before, during and after Tuesday evening's State of the Union address.

A little after 9 p.m., the traditional bipartisan scramble extended smiles and hands toward Obama as he strode into a joint session of Congress. But the pre-speech hustle featured no one from Chattanooga, Knoxville, Maryville or Jasper, reflecting the wide political gap between the president and the Volunteer State's congressional lineup.

Seated in a rear flank of the House chamber was U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn. The Jasper physician personified skepticism, pecking on his smartphone as Obama entered the room. He frowned as he heard mentions of gun control, immigration reform and climate change. Closer to the chamber's middle, four seats from the main aisle, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., made no effort to greet the president. He crossed his arms as the speech began, and a tight grimace barely left his face.

When Obama said "the state of our union is strong," neither DesJarlais nor Fleischmann rose with the standing ovation, a common action among Republicans in the room. On the left-hand side of the chamber, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, snapped photos with his iPad.

"I told the president he pulled a Michael Jordan," Cohen said in an interview afterward. "Points, rebounds, assists and steals. He did it all."

Republicans routinely criticize Obama for rampant spending, a point the president addressed when he said "nothing I'm proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime." In an interview after the speech, Fleischmann suggested that he'd heard it all before.

"Sadly," the Ooltewah Republican said, "more of the same."

DesJarlais did not respond to questions after Obama finished.

Like any Washington gathering, portions of the event were staged long before anything happened. Various representatives, including U.S. Rep. Jimmy Duncan, a Knoxville Republican, issued critical responses to Obama's speech three hours before the president uttered a word to Congress.

Also earlier in the day, U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, Republicans of Tennessee, hoped for an undiluted message from Obama.

"I think President Obama's agenda should be one line: Get our fiscal house in order," Corker said.

He didn't get his wish as Obama pushed for gay rights, clean energy and increased infrastructure spending.

Alexander breezed past reporters after the speech, but issued a statement that said Obama "missed a golden opportunity" to address spending. Corker could not be located.

Lots of advance work was necessary to protect those assembled, which included several Supreme Court justices and the president's Cabinet. Bomb-sniffing dogs roamed the House Press Gallery in the Capitol Police "sweep" of the building. Armed security guards glowered every 10 steps, sharing space with a tangle of television lights, wires and fluorescence.

The gear stood in stark contrast to the 18th- and 19th-century Americans memorialized in Statuary Hall (with John Sevier, Tennessee's first governor, representing the Volunteer State).

Cohen brought a guest close to the gun control debate. He awarded his extra ticket to the 12-year-old daughter of a teacher who died in December's mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, a Johnson City Republican, said he was enthusiastic about the speech's big news: that 34,000 troops are coming home from Afghanistan over the next year.

"I support us getting out of Afghanistan," Roe said, adding that he's traveled there twice. "I think that's good."

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