South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley used Tuesday’s Republican response to the president’s address to present a GOP working for those tired of President Barack Obama’s vision for the nation while also attempting to project a more compassionate attitude toward immigrants.
Speaking from the South Carolina statehouse in Columbia, Haley criticized almost all of Obama’s policies – on everything from Iran to health care, focusing on what Republican Party could achieve on such important issues with a Republican in the White House.
More than offering specific policy proposals, Haley spoke to those “frustrated” with Obama’s support for gay marriage and gun control, saying a Republican administration in 2016 would provide alternative answers more in line with conservative beliefs.
Haley spoke at length about the need for immigration reform, referencing her personal story as the child of Indian immigrants. Advocating a welcoming immigration process that limits illegal immigration, Haley appeared to call out the more divisive rhetoric of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has called for a ban on Muslim immigrants and deportation of all undocumented immigrants.
“During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” she said. “We must resist that temptation.”
In her address, which many on social media sites like Twitter called stiff and robotic, Haley spoke to her fellow Republicans about taking a new, policy-driven direction as well.
“While Democrats in Washington bear much responsibility for the problems facing America today, they do not bear it alone…We as Republicans need to own that truth,” she said. “We need to accept that we’ve played a role in how and why our government is broken. And then we need to fix it.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced the selection of Haley to give the official GOP response early last week. In a news release, Ryan and McConnell cited Haley’s strong economic agenda in South Carolina and her record as a reformer in the state as reasons for their pick.
The Republican leadership had also promoted the speech as an example of the inclusive vision they have for 2016, which Ryan has said the GOP will make a “year of ideas.”
The choice of Haley wasn’t a surprise for Peter Fenn, president of Fenn Communications group, a political consulting agency. Now in her second term as governor, Haley is the first female Indian-American governor as well as the youngest governor currently in office. While the party may be presenting Haley as a conservative outsider, Fenn, a Democrat, said he believes the Republican leadership chose her for much simpler reasons.
“It’s relatively clear the Republicans will be running against a woman candidate so choosing a woman to respond [to the State of the Union] isn’t brain surgery,” Fenn said. “She fits their needs.”
Haley is the third woman in three years to present the Republican response to the State of the Union address, following Iowa Rep. Joni Ernst last year and Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers in 2014.
Reaching the governor’s mansion on the back of Tea Party support in 2010, Haley followed a conservative agenda of pension and Medicaid reform, and she refused to expand Medicaid under Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
Last year, Haley was widely praised on the national stage for her handling of the shooting at a historically black church in Charleston by a white supremacist. Following the shooting, Haley reversed her stance on flying the Confederate flag and signed a bill removing it from the Capitol grounds despite opposition from state Tea Party legislators.
Giving the Republican response might elevate Haley’s national profile as it helped elevate current presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio in 2013, especially amid growing speculation about her viability as a vice presidential candidate. However, Fenn said, it’s hard to predict how the speech will play for voters.
“Most of these speeches don’t come off well,” Fenn said. “If she does a good job, it may put her in the mix.”
A Public Policy Polling report last November showed Haley held widespread — and surprisingly bipartisan — favorability, reflecting the goodwill she garnered following her handling of the Confederate flag issue.
However, the poll showed only 25 percent of voters wanted Haley on the Republican presidential ticket in 2016.