South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s (R) response to President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address was widely hailed as a slam-dunk success for the rising Republican star in its immediate aftermath Tuesday night.
Veteran Republican pollster Frank Luntz noted on Twitter that Haley’s televised speech rated better among voters in his focus group than even Obama’s address.
He added that it was the most favourable-scoring State of the Union response he had ever tested.
Haley, whose name has been kicked around as a potential 2016 vice-presidential nominee, began off her remarks by praising Obama’s historic 2008 election. Then she took a shot at him for what she views as failing to live up to his promise.
“Barack Obama’s election as president seven years ago broke historic barriers and inspired millions of Americans,” Haley said. “As he did when he first ran for office, tonight President Obama spoke eloquently about grand things. He is at his best when he does that.”
She continued: “Unfortunately, the president’s record has often fallen far short of his soaring words.”
Haley went on to cite the economy, which she said is “too weak to raise income levels,” a healthcare plan that “has made insurance less affordable and doctors less available,” and terrorist threats that “this president appears either unwilling or unable to deal with.”
And she talked about the frustrations the American people have with partisan gridlock in Washington, which Obama also referenced in his speech.
“While Democrats in Washington bear much responsibility for the problems facing America today, they do not bear it alone,” Haley said. “There is more than enough blame to go around. We as Republicans need to own that truth. We need to recognise our contributions to the erosion of the public trust in America’s leadership. We need to accept that we’ve played a role in how and why our government is broken.”
Haley moved on to tout her diverse background, saying her story “is really not much different from millions of other Americans.” Haley was born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa to immigrants who moved to South Carolina from India’s Punjab state.
“Growing up in the rural south, my family didn’t look like our neighbours, and we didn’t have much,” Haley said. “There were times that were tough, but we had each other, and we had the opportunity to do anything, to be anything, as long as we were willing to work for it.”
In one of the more eyebrow-raising portions of her speech, Haley took an implicit shot at Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, who has proposed temporarily barring Muslim tourists and immigrants from entering the US.
“Today, we live in a time of threats like few others in recent memory,” she said. “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation.”
At another point in her speech, Haley referenced last year’s shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. In June, suspect Dylann Roof allegedly killed nine black churchgoers during a Bible study class.
“Our state was struck with shock, pain, and fear,” she said. “But our people would not allow hate to win. We didn’t have violence, we had vigils. We didn’t have riots, we had hugs. We didn’t turn against each other’s race or religion. We turned toward God, and to the values that have long made our country the freest and greatest in the world.”
She also mentioned the controversy surrounding the Confederate flag, which she famously decided to remove from the South Carolina state-capitol grounds after the Charleston shooting. She told The New York Times at the time that she “couldn’t look [her] son or daughter in the face and justify that flag flying anymore.”
“We removed a symbol that was being used to divide us, and we found a strength that united us against a domestic terrorist and the hate that filled him,” she said. “There’s an important lesson in this. In many parts of society today, whether in popular culture, academia, the media, or politics, there’s a tendency to falsely equate noise with results.”
Many praised Haley’s speech, including high-level Republican operatives. Some referenced her potential vice-presidential aspirations.
Luntz tweeted charts showing how well the speech rated on both sides of the aisle:
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus tweeted that Haley did a great job with her speech:
And New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof said it was one of the most effective State of the Union responses he’s ever seen: