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How America Responded to Obama’s Final State of the Union

Republicans hated Barack Obama's final hourlong address to the country, Democrats loved it, and Donald Trump thought it was boring.

President Barack Obama during his final State of the Union address. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The State of the Union address is a rare national moment where, once a year, the sitting president is on our screens for an entire hour or more, explaining how he sees the world and what he wants to do. For his supporters, it's basically a pep rally. For his opponents, the speech is almost therapeutic: Here's the person you spend most of your day hating, talking about everything you've told voters you hate, and here's your chance to explain why it sucks.

This division is particularly palpable during an election year, when emotions are on an endless high until November; the fact that Tuesday night was Obama's final SOTU speech only adds to the perceived drama. (The conservative hashtag this time around was, in fact, #LastSOTU.)

Unsurprisingly, Barack Obama supporters defended what they saw as a victory lap. Equally predictable was the Republican response—this was their last chance to air their grievances online or on television, and an opportunity for the GOP presidential candidates to distinguish themselves from a commander-in-chief that some of them seem to see as wildly incompetent or dangerously close to a dictator.

Here are some of the most notable responses to the State of the Union.

The Republican Candidates
Surprisingly enough, Donald Trump kept his mouth, or at least his Twitter account, shut for most of the speech. He criticized the Iran deal, and then eventually just sort of gave up trying: "The #SOTU speech is really boring, slow, lethargic—very hard to watch," he tweeted toward its end. If Trump ever becomes president, his states of the union are going to be really big, tremendous, incredible speeches that are also very fast.

Struggle candidate Jeb Bush had his social media team poll his Twitter followers about what Obama's biggest failure was ("weak foreign policy" appears to have won). He then did the usual opposition thing of tweeting some rebuttals to Obama's lines, at one point dinging the president for not calling ISIS "radical Islamic terrorists," a common conservative critique. That's unlikely to rescue his faltering campaign, but at least he's still trying.

Marco Rubio was in the chamber in his capacity as a senator, and looked every bit as excited as anyone whose boss asks them to stay at the office past 9 PM.

Ted Cruz took another tack, skipping out on the speech to campaign in New Hampshire, then jumped right on the air to shrug off the speech as being "more of the same" and criticize Obama for being soft on terrorism. He did use the occasion on Tuesday to give a preview of what his 2018 SOTU would look like: He would repeal Obamacare, abolish the IRS, and build a border wall. Hillary Clinton would be in prison in this timeline, though that was probably a joke.

The Republican Establishment

The official GOP SOTU rebuttal came from South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who was in the national news most recently when she called for taking down the Confederate flag after the racially-motivated massacre in Charleston. This speech traditionally acts as a showcase for potential presidential or vice-presidential candidates, but it often ends up being embarrassing—the most memorable recent moment from SOTU responses was probably that time Marco Rubio drank water in the middle of his.

Haley went by the book as she ran through her party's talking points as dutifully as Obama had gone through his. The president "spoke eloquently about grand things," but provided nothing of substance, she said; Washington is a bunch of do-nothings; Republicans must save Washington; and Obama doesn't stand for all Americans. "If we held the White House, taxes would be lower for working families, and we'd put the brakes on runaway spending and debt," she promised. "We would make international agreements that were celebrated in Israel and protested in Iran, not the other way around." She did echo some of Obama's digs at Trump, emphasizing that the country shouldn't listen to its "angriest voices."

The substance of the speech was a bit beside the point—it also served as a screen test for someone who is likely to be high up on the list of potential VPs. Haley seemed somewhat stiff on camera, but as a young governor who is both a woman and the daughter of immigrants, she is likely going to get a lot more practice on the national stage.

The Democrats
Just as Republicans did their duty in opposing the speech, Democrats lined up to support it. Bernie Sanders lauded President Obama for discussing climate change and the fight against ISIS. "I also appreciated the president's point that we need more civil politics," the candidate said in a statement, "that we need to get big money out of politics, and that at a time of tremendous wealth and income inequality we must revitalize American democracy."

Sanders began his campaign as an insurgent but has emerged as a serious threat to frontrunner Hillary Clinton, even winning one recent Iowa poll. He also scored bonus points this week when Vice President Joe Biden said the Vermont senator was more attuned to the issue of income inequality than Hillary was.

Clinton, meanwhile, took the SOTU as an opportunity to remind people that she would basically be Barack Obama part two. Her social media team even threw out a photo emblazoned with the words, "Thank You, President Obama."

And with that, everyone went back to work trying to figure out how to be the one getting up on that podium next year.

Follow John Surico on Twitter.