Paul Ryan explains his poker face

Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker Paul Ryan look on as President Barack Obama delivers his 2016 State of the Union address on Tuesday.

In my day-after piece on President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech, I made a fairly big deal about the Republican reaction, mostly nonreaction, in the House chamber, which was personified by House Speaker Paul Ryan maintaining a severely frozen facial expression in the camera shot behind Obama. And I used it to symbolize the sadness of our gridlocked system. So, when I came upon an interview of Ryan by Susan Page of USA Today, in which she actually asked him about the frozen face, I felt obliged by fairness and balance to transcribe his explanation and his reaction to the whole speech.

If you’d rather watch and listen, it’s on video here. If you like words in print (or whatever we call unprinted pixels in the new media), here’s my imperfect version. It starts with Page just giving Ryan carte blanche to react to the speech. Ryan said:

“I thought it was a fairly typical speech for the president. Apparently ISIS is a bunch of guys riding around in trucks, and a picture of a good foreign policy is Syria. I think he glossed over the economy. I think he glossed over our foreign-policy failures. I’m used to seeing what I call straw men arguments from the president.

“And I’m glad he talked about the polarization in our politics in America, but I got the sense he was saying it was other people’s fault. It’s not just the president’s fault, but I think there’s culpability here, particularly when it’s the president of the United States saying it.

“So look, we’re the opposition party. We see things quite differently. I think the country is heading in the wrong direction. And as a result, I think we have an obligation of showing people how we would do things differently and that’s what we intend on making 2016 about. It’s going to be a year of ideas for us. …”

Not persuaded

Page said that Obama thinks that things are a lot better than Republicans say. She said she guessed Obama had not persuaded Ryan of that. He replied:

“No, it didn’t persuade me. … My observation is that he looks at the world as if it is what he wishes it would be, not what it is. So I believe he looks at the landscape of things, whether it’s domestically or particularly foreign policy, and he sees through a lens of what he wishes it was, as if that’s what it is, when it really isn’t. D’you understand what I’m saying? I think he has really cloaked himself in that kind of vision. And I think it’s very myopic. I think it is not consistent with the facts on the ground.

“… I think he thinks his policies are working and they’re not. And I think all of the evidence is in, particularly on foreign policy.”

Page brought up Donald Trump, partly to suggest that both Obama and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, in her Republican response remarks, had made veiled and negative reference to Trump’s ideas, including the idea of a temporary ban on Muslims coming into America. Ryan replied:

“Putting a religious test on anybody coming to this country is wrong. We ought to have a security test, not a religious test. That’s who we are. This country was founded on people fleeing to America for religious freedom. It’s the first amendment in our Constitution.  

“But I think it sort of degrades the presidency to then talk about primary politics in the other party, during primaries. That’s not what presidents ought to be talking about in State of the Union addresses. They shouldn’t be talking about the go-betweens on primary politics.

“So I think at the end of the day, speaking up for our values and speaking up for our beliefs is one thing. But kind of wading into the primary politics of the other party is just not really what presidents ought to do.”

Page asked for Ryan’s take on Haley’s Republican response. Ryan gave her a rave and said Republican policies are inclusive.

“I think she’s made her point pretty well, which is as conservatives we’ve got great principles, great ideas, and these are inspirational. These are optimistic ideas. These are inclusive ideas. And that means that we have a conservative set of philosophies and principles that give us policies that actually should be inclusive and appealing to people, and I believe what Nikki Haley did was go out and win converts to conservatism.”

More on Trump

Back on the subject Trump, and the big response he has triggered in general, Ryan said Trumpism connects with  the widespread fear in the country that so many things are going wrong:

“I think people are really nervous. I think people are really anxious. And that’s because they believe that the country as they know it, this American idea — the condition of your birth doesn’t determine the outcome of your life … so many people are worried that’s leaving us.

“People are going to say, I want someone who understands the pain I feel and the anxiety I have and the fear I have that the country is going to lose a piece of its greatness. … I think that’s more than a Republican thing. I think Democrats feel it the same way.”

Ryan said that “of course” he would support Trump, if Trump is the nominee. “I respect the primary process,” he said. “I respect the Republican primary voter.”

Ryan, who is slated to preside over the Republican nominating convention in Cleveland in July, said he did not expect it to be a “brokered convention.”

Then Page asked him about the expressionless face he maintained during Obama’s speech.

Page: “You’re sitting up there. You know that your face is on every TV shot. You’re staring at the back of his head.”

Ryan: “That’s pretty much what I did, yeah … It’s hard doing nothing for an hour.

“Basically, I disagreed with much of what he had to say. I didn’t want to be disrespectful. I didn’t want to wince or grimace. So I just poker-faced the whole thing. Just out of respect for the institution of the office. The State of the Union’s a great thing. And I just basically wanted to be wallpaper and not be a part of it, from an expression point of view. But I guess what I was thinking is, every time he’s saying something, I’m refuting it in my mind. Or if I agree with it, I’m agreeing with it in my mind.”

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Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/14/2016 - 10:14 am.

    It was obvious to all

    that Paul Ryan simply picked out a spot on the back of Obama’s head and focused on it in an attempt to just get through the 60 minutes of nonsense.

  2. Submitted by Tim Smith on 01/14/2016 - 10:44 am.

    have we forgotten?

    Why did he even have to answer the question? When President Bush spoke Nancy Pelosi looked like she was going to cry and other times like she wanted to punch someone. When President Obama took over she was the hyper cheerleader, all smiles!!

    Lets get past this nonsense, who gives a crap?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/14/2016 - 01:03 pm.


      Why was the question even asked? You’re right, it’s nonsense.

      Why can’t one of these discussions not devolve into “Look what this Democrat did?” Lets get past that nonsense, who gives a crap?

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/14/2016 - 10:56 am.

    The poker face

    I disagree with Paul Ryan on most things political, in both domestic and foreign policy, but I respect and even appreciate his poker face. The notion of being “part of the wallpaper” while the President of the opposite party is delivering a State of the Union Address is, as he suggests, respectful of the office and the office-holder, and since he’s going to be in most of the TV shots for the better part of an hour, a poker face is, I’d argue, far better than either of the other extremes of grimaces or cheerleading. It’s not his speech, and the occasion isn’t about him. That would be (or ought to be) true for Obama’s predecessor and successor as well. At least Ryan is an adult, as opposed to the petulant 3-year-old we saw in Joe Wilson’s ‘You lie” outburst.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 01/14/2016 - 02:54 pm.

      As I recall . . . .

      As I recall, Boehner always sat with a poker face, also. I never found it worthy of comment. It was pretty obvious that he was aware of how visible he was and was staying as “facially neutral” as possible – whether out of respect for the Presidency or just making sure no one would be able to later make hay with some momentarily inopportune facial expression.

      I guess I was a little surprised that Ryan’s lack of expression while occupying was even worth commenting on.

      I have to say, though – until it was over, I was a bit apprehensive that some kind of repeat of the “You lie!” moment might have happened, if for no reason than that it was the last chance to do it. I was relieved that it didn’t happen. And hopefully nothing like that will ever happen again.

      This is gonna be an interesting year . . . . . . .

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/14/2016 - 11:28 am.

    What??Is it an unreasonable


    Is it an unreasonable expectation to expect an adult to listen politely for an hour or so ?

    It’s not like it’s a discussion or a debate. It’s a Constitutionally mandated (perhaps) event with one person speaking–the President of the United States.

    Act like a grown-up, fer gods sake.

  5. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/14/2016 - 11:43 am.

    But I think it sort of degrades the presidency to then talk about primary politics in the other party, during primaries.

    I think Rep. Ryan is wrong here. The Republican Party, one of our two main parties is going through a crisis, both moral and otherwise. This is of concern to all Americans, and I think it’s fair and certainly not degrading for any American to comment about it. My own party, The Democratic Party has had it’s share of let’s just say problematic individuals over the years and Republicans have never been shy about commenting on them. And you know what? However uncomfortable that made us, they were right to do so. Ultimately, their criticism made our party better and stronger, and that was good for us and for the country as a whole.

    • Submitted by Joe Musich on 01/14/2016 - 09:37 pm.

      Ryan is …

      manipulating the situation. He is intimating that he will not “degrade the Presidency.” He is shooting for a brokered GOP convention. He hopes this will result in him as choice for the nomination with his hand pick choice for State of the Union Republican Haley as VP choice. A couple of pardon me here, ” cute youngsters.” He is doing this not by Trumping anyone but by calculatingly appearing measured and reasonable. He is under the presses radar unlike the rest of those running. Therefore the press is not doing much investigation. He is using the same tactics that got him the speakership. He is dangerous.

  6. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 01/14/2016 - 11:58 am.

    Ryan showed a nice touch of Midwestern decency in maintaining his poker face. Contrast his determined show of respect for the office of the Presidency with the histrionic vulgarity of the GOP primary campaign, and as a Democrat who disagrees with Ryan’s policy directions on so many things, I have to say that he, at least, acts like an adult and has a right to be at the policy-making table. Ryan is a throw-back to when Republicans actually thought carefully about issues and realized that it is hard to govern.

  7. Submitted by Brian Simon on 01/14/2016 - 01:06 pm.

    Just once

    It would be nice to hear a Republican acknowledge that there is such a thing as respectful debate and difference of opinion.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/14/2016 - 01:49 pm.

      They Do

      It’s just not what you or I would understand as “respectful debate and difference of opinion.” When a Republican says anything that opposes President Obama, it constitutes “respectful debate and difference of opinion.” If it can’t be said to be that (e.g. an offensive racial or sexist remark about a Democrat), it’s “just a joke” or was taken out of context.

      If a Republican says or does something truly over the top (e.g. yells “You lie!”) during the State of the Union address, they will scour the archives for examples of liberals behaving badly towards Republicans. The more ill-mannered will claim that it was justified.

      Democrats, on the other hand, are incapable of having a difference of opinion with Republicans unless it is motivated by hatred, or driven by intolerance.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/14/2016 - 05:53 pm.

        It might be more accurate to say

        that Democrats are willing to acknowledge that there might be a difference of opinion on important topics.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/15/2016 - 10:01 am.


          My bad. The last sentence should read “Democrats, on the other hand, are perceived by Republicans as incapable of having a difference of opinion . . .”

  8. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 01/14/2016 - 11:09 pm.

    Polker face…?

    No. The childish smirks were quite evident if you were looking close.

  9. Submitted by joe smith on 01/15/2016 - 07:16 am.

    After 7 years of hearing the same speech every time by Obama Ryan, like most of us, tuned out and was planning his next deer hunt. Who could blame him? The SOTU speech was watched by fewer folks and was just another “things are way better than you know, believe me” speech. Folks tend to believe their own wallet, job and future of their family/loved ones, rather than a President who promised the moon and delivered spam in a can…. cold….

  10. Submitted by Jim Million on 01/15/2016 - 09:23 am.

    Buried Lead, for Sure

    Eric, this must be the most obvious example of burying a lead seen in these pages. Your final paragraph, lifted from Page/Ryan, says all we ever needed to know, or not know, as others might note.

    A better title might have been: Ryan Exhibits Resigned Indulgence.

    Perfect photo here, however. Pretty much tells us all we might need to know about this particular ménage à trois. Joe Biden clearly has this stuff down pat.

    And, Eric, thanks for giving comment opportunity for all here who did not watch the program.

  11. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/21/2016 - 09:04 pm.

    The “opposition”?

    Perfect: No matter what the topic, what the solution, what the success, as the opposition we must oppose it! Lots of broad (political dart) comments about failures mentioned but none specifically mentioned why? Sorry nothing grown up, mature, honorable, respectful about that attitude, and it does degrade the position that was elected by “all the people”
    Again, what happened to “We the people in order …………………………..?

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