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. …”
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.”