WASHINGTON, D.C. — Two of the most conspicuous figures in the audience at Wednesday night’s Joint Session of Congress were women with almost identical first names but little else in common.
One, of course, was Michelle Obama, who received a standing ovation when she arrived in the House visitors’gallery minutes before her husband exhorted lawmakers to help him overhaul the nation’s healthcare system — and perhaps regain the political momentum he lost during an August dominated by angry outbursts from critics of his far-reaching plan.
The tall, elegant First Lady, wearing a peach colored dress and flanked by Ted Kennedy’s widow, Vice President Joe Biden’s wife and a bevy of people who’ve had trouble paying for their health-care bills, including a 62-year-old farmer’s wife from Carrington, N.D., was in full campaign mode, beaming at supporters and flashing the thumbs up sign.
The other was Rep. Michele Bachmann, not as tall but equally elegant in a black dress that matched her mood, who was conspicuous for a different reason. Sitting directly in front of the president six rows back on the GOP side of the packed chamber, the outspoken — often outrageously so — socially conservative Minnesota Republican made it clear she wasn’t there to lend a helping hand to Obama, as she did while planting a prolonged kiss on President George W. Bush at his 2007 State of the Union speech.
In fact, Bachmann could barely bring herself to acknowledge Obama’s presence. Demonstrating what must be the weakest effort at applause ever, she slowly brought her hands together when Obama arrived. But that was even more effort than she could muster during most of the 44 times — I counted them — when Obama’s speech was greeted by applause.
On a number of those times, when Obama received standing ovations even from Republicans, she was the only member who remained sitting. And on many occasions, when her colleagues applauded Obama, she feebly patty-caked the back of one hand with another instead of bringing her palms together.
I was sitting in the press gallery, above Obama, whom I couldn’t see, and in front of Bachmann, whom I could. As I watched her, I became fascinated with her demeanor. I’ve watched every president from Lyndon Johnson to Obama address joint sessions of Congress, including every State of the Union speech since 1966, and I’ve never seen anyone display the disdainful attitude toward a president as Bachmann did.
Thankfully, she didn’t sink to the depths of Rep. Joe Wilson, the out-of-control South Carolina Republican who cried out “You lie!” when Obama said reports that his reform effort would insure illegal immigrants were false. (With Gov. Mark Sanford’s recent extra-marital adventures in Argentina, South Carolina is the only state that’s had a worse summer than Obama.)
As I watched Bachmann, who frequently chatted with an equally disinterested colleague — I think it was Florida’s Ginny Brown-Waite, but I’m not sure — I began to record her reactions as members, sometimes mostly Democrat but often many Republicans as well, rose to give Obama standing ovations: Here are some of them:
• Obama cites two “heart-breaking” examples of people betrayed by insurance companies and declares, “No one should be treated that way in the United States of America.” (Bachman remains sitting, patty-cake applause).
• Obama declares that under his plan, “it will be against the law for insurance companies to deny you coverage because of pre-existing condition.” (Bachmann rises belatedly, weak applause).
• Obama promises to place a limit on out-of-pocket expenses “because in the United States of America, no one should go broke because they get sick.” (Bachmann remains sitting, weak applause).
• Obama says: “It’s time to give every American the same opportunity that we’ve given ourselves” as members of Congress. (Bachmann remains sitting, no applause).
• Obama calls GOP Sen. John McCain’s proposal during the 2008 presidential campaign to create an insurance exchange where individuals and small businesses can shop for health insurance at competitive prices “a good idea” then and “a good idea now, and we should embrace it.” (Bachman remains sitting, no applause.)
• Obama: “We will place a limit on how much you can be charged for out-of-pocket expenses, because in the United States of America, no one should go broke because they get sick.” (Bachmann remains sitting, weak applause).
• Obama: “I will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits — either now or in the future. Period.” (Bachmann, sitting but applauding).
About the only times Bachmann was able to shake off her lethargy was when she jumped to her feet to join Republicans as they waved copies of the GOP healthcare proposal when Obama said that “we should work together to address any legitimate concerns you may have,” and when he indicated he would not insist on a public option provision as part of his plan.
Hosting a town hall meeting
I guess it’s fair to conclude that Bachmann, the first Repblican woman elected to Congress from Minnesota, won’t be applauding Obama when he comes to Minneapolis on Saturday to talk about his health care plan. Actually, she’ll be hosting a town hall meeting on health care reform that day in her central Minnesota district in St. Cloud.
But don’t expect her to keep a low profile. She is, after all, Minnesota’s second most Googled politician — she currently has 1.04 million hits on the Internet search engine, second only to new Democratic Sen. Al Franken’s 3.98 million — and may regain her high visibility by repeating her charge that Obama’s health care plan includes “death panels” that will pull the plug on aging seniors.
Or maybe she’ll just call again, as she did in 2008, for the media to investigate Obama and other members of Congress for anti-American bias, or insist that carbon dioxide is a harmless gas that doesn’t cause global warming and declare, as she did last March, that she wants Minnesotans “armed and dangerous” to fight Obama’s proposed cap and trade tax policy to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Or perhaps she’ll just argue that evolution is a theory that has never been proven.
And maybe she’ll even make it really interesting and reveal that God wants her to run for president.