Tale of Two SOTU's: Obama's Loss of House Hardly Noticed; Power 'Flowed Away' From Bush in 2007

Sheryl Gay Stolberg's take on Obama's State of the Union address led Wednesday's New York Times, under a headline that favorably quoted a boring bit of boilerplate from the president's speech: "Obama Proposing Bipartisan Effort To Win The Future."

Even though it was Obama's first State of the Union since his party lost control of the House and saw its Senate majority shredded, the Times didn't dwell on the decline in his party's fortune.

By contrast, Kate Zernike's 2007 lead story on Bush's first State of the Union after the Republicans lost Congress emphasized the power shift away from the president, while lauding new Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

Stolberg opened:

President Obama challenged Americans on Tuesday night to unleash their creative spirit, set aside their partisan differences and come together around a common goal of outcompeting other nations in a rapidly shifting global economy.

She was kind to a speech universally regarded as flat and emotionless.

The president's speech, lasting slightly more than an hour, lacked the loft of the inspirational address he delivered in Tucson days after the shooting. But it seemed intended to elevate his presidency above the bare-knuckled legislative gamesmanship that has defined the first two years of his term.

Stolberg treated the Republican response (standard procedure) as a rejection of Obama's attempt at spreading "good will."

And he tried to charm Republicans by weaving the new House speaker, Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, into his narrative about American greatness, citing Mr. Boehner's rise from "someone who began by sweeping the floors of his father's Cincinnati bar" as an example of "a country where anything is possible."

Still, the good will lasted only so long. Moments after Mr. Obama finished speaking, Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, delivered the official Republican response, in which he criticized Mr. Obama as doing too little to attack the deficit.

And Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who delivered her own Republican critique with the backing of the Tea Party wing, complained that instead of creating "a leaner, smarter government," Mr. Obama had created "a bureaucracy that tells us which light bulbs to buy."

The president sought to use Tuesday night's address to shed the tag of big-government liberal that Republicans have placed on him, and to reclaim the mantle of a pragmatic, postpartisan leader that he used to ride to the presidency in 2008.

A "mantle" of moderation placed on him by Times reporters like Stolberg.

Contrast Stolberg's mild take with Kate Zernike's January 24, 2007 lead story on Bush's first State of the Union after the Republicans lost control of Congress:

The first two words of the evening on Tuesday were evidence of how much has changed here: "Madam Speaker," boomed Congressional escorts, "the president of the United States."

Even Mr. Bush acknowledged the transformation, setting off a wave of applause. "Tonight, I have the high privilege and distinct honor to begin a speech with the words 'Madam Speaker,'"he said in a nod to Representative Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to be speaker of the House.

But all the courtesies and flourishes of the evening could not paper over the reminders of how power has flowed away from the president in the new Washington.

Not just because for the first time Mr. Bush delivered his address with a Democrat staring down his back. Not just because his poll numbers are dismal. Not just because the mayor of the nation's capital rejected the White House's invitation to sit with the first lady, Laura Bush, in her box and instead came as Ms. Pelosi's guest. Even Republicans, while noting that it was ''the president's day,'' as Senator John W. Warner of Virginia described it, yielded only a share of the spotlight.

- Clay Waters is director of Times Watch. You can follow him on Twitter.