The President Speaks and Some Viewers Yell Back

Diners at Ristorante Settepani in the Harlem neighborhood of New York watch President Obama's State of the Union address on Jan. 28, 2013. (Patrick McGovern/NY City Lens)

Diners at Ristorante Settepani in the Harlem neighborhood of New York watch President Obama’s State of the Union address on Jan. 28, 2013. (Patrick McGovern/NY City Lens)

An energized crowd of approximately 40 people crowded into the bar area of Ristorante Settepani in Harlem Tuesday night to watch President Barack Obama deliver the State of the Union address. Members of the group Organizing for Action, a non-profit, non-partisan organization focused on progressive issues, gathered at the restaurant to both observe and discuss the issues in the president’s address.

“Many of us sit alone and yell at the television,” said Ny Whitaker, head of the New York chapter for Organizing for Action. “Here, instead we can yell and talk to each other.”

Nearly 33 million viewers tuned in to watch and hear the president Tuesday night, according to Nielsen, the lowest audience ever. But for the small crowd at Ristorante Settepani, that didn’t matter. The first big response of the evening came a few minutes into the president’s remarks.

“America does not stand still – and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do,” the president said.

“That’s right!” exclaimed Evette Heyliger, 54, a senior fellow with the organization and a playwright from Harlem.

“I’d actually like him to use his executive power more often,” said Whitaker, 39, a small business owner from East Harlem, after hearing the president speak on the subject. “He could get around the roadblocks in Congress that way and get something done.”

The First Lady, Michelle Obama, and the president’s call for equal pay for women drew the evening’s largest cheers.

“It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a “Mad Men” episode,” said Obama, which drew raucous cheers from the group. “This year, let’s all come together – Congress, the White House, and businesses from Wall Street to Main Street – to give every woman the opportunity she deserves.”

“We have a very eclectic, diverse crowd here tonight,” said Whitaker. “And look, more women than men.”

“I’m glad he spoke about healthcare,” said Rose Teneyck, a member of the group from Harlem. “I don’t need Obamacare personally, but I strongly believe in what the president is trying to do.”

Despite the non-partisan aspect of the group, many, if not all, seemed to support Obama on all the major issues he touched upon in his address.

“I’m pleased he touched upon gun control,” said Heyliger. “That’s something I’m very passionate about and one of the reasons I come to these events.”

Nino Settepani, who has owned Ristorante Settepani for 13 years, enjoys the political events but stays out of any political discussions.

“Something like the State of the Union is a way to get the neighborhood, and the country, together,” said Settepani, a native of Palermo, Sicily. “But as a restaurateur, I’m apolitical. I think a restaurant is a place where everyone can express their opinions, no matter where they are politically.”

“But at work, I don’t express my opinions,” he said. “At home,” he smiled, “it’s different.”

As Washington state Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers delivered the Republican response to the president’s speech, only a few paid attention.

“Sounds like a commercial,” someone said to the screen, as the crowd headed for the exit into the freezing night.