In State of the Union address, Biden mixes bipartisanship with defiance

February 9, 2023

President Joe Biden, facing a vocal and divided Congress, used his second State of the Union address on Tuesday, February 7, to emphasize popular ideas from job creation to healthcare—aiming to throw Republicans on the defensive and pitch himself as a friend of ordinary Americans, reports The Washington Post.

In a speech that foreshadowed his potential 2024 campaign message, Biden defended his record, made a direct appeal to blue-collar workers, and sought to shift voter attitudes about the economy by touting his administration’s massive investment in the nation’s infrastructure.

Alternating between calls for Republicans to unify with Democrats and condemnation of the GOP’s least popular policies, Biden showcased both the potential for future cooperation and the likelihood of nasty partisan fights over the next two years.

“To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can’t work together and find consensus on important things in this Congress as well,” Biden said. “The people sent us a clear message. Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict gets us nowhere.”

That remark was met with applause, but the comity quickly gave way to acrimony as GOP lawmakers began interrupting the president with shouts of opposition. The break in decorum came as Republicans took exception to Biden’s remarks on issues ranging from the fentanyl crisis to the national debt—and he often fired back.

The speech—taking place just weeks before Biden’s expected announcement that he will seek reelection—was widely viewed as a soft launch for a campaign for a second term. Adding to the tension of the moment was a looming partisan fight over the debt limit and the approach of the one-year mark of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Biden presented himself as an elder statesman capable of working across the aisle while also cutting the figure of a shrewd politician with strongly held beliefs. He outlined areas for potential bipartisanship—including technology, health care and foreign policy—but sharply rejected Republican proposals on issues ranging from immigration to taxes to Social Security and Medicare.

He adopted “Let’s finish the job” as a mantra, a phrase that seemed designed to temper his triumphant declarations with a recognition that many Americans remain anxious and are far from feeling secure or prosperous.

And he sought to shape a political message of empathy and help for ordinary Americans: “Amid the economic upheaval of the past four decades, too many people have been left behind or treated like they’re invisible. Maybe that’s you, watching at home,” Biden said. “You remember the jobs that went away, and you wonder whether a path even exists anymore for you and your children to get ahead without moving away. I get it.”

The night’s most unexpected drama was a back-and-forth between speaker and audience that is highly unusual, perhaps unprecedented in a presidential address to Congress. When Biden began decrying the opioid crisis, GOP lawmakers shouted back about the border.

When he noted disapprovingly that some lawmakers want to repeal the Inflation Reduction Act, some Republicans cheered. Biden ad-libbed dryly, “As a coach of mine used to say, ‘Good luck in your senior year.’”

When Biden said the Trump Administration was responsible for nearly 25% of the national debt, GOP lawmakers protested vocally; Biden responded: “Check it out. Check it out.”

But the most forceful Republican response, a cascade of boos and denials, came when Biden said that some Republicans want to cut Medicare and Social Security. Several Republicans shouted loudly enough to interrupt Biden’s speech, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who exclaimed “Liar!”

The president responded by professing surprise that they had changed their position and now liked those programs, saying, “I enjoy conversion.” Adding that he would veto any effort to cut Social Security and Medicare, he added wryly, “But apparently it’s not going to be a problem.”

Greene shouted interruptions during Biden’s speech several times. When Biden addressed U.S. competition with China, she shouted, “China’s spying on us!” That prompted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-California) to try to shush her from behind the dais.

With Republicans planning to use their majority to frustrate much of Biden’s agenda, many of the proposals Biden endorsed on Tuesday night were unlikely to be realized over the next two years, the Post said. In effect, he was using the biggest stage of his presidency as an opportunity to sell his vision, his record and his agenda heading toward the 2024 election.

From the record pace of job creation to growth in the manufacturing sector, to new semiconductor plants and infrastructure projects, Biden presented a broadly optimistic view.

“Two years ago the economy was reeling,” he said. “I stand here tonight, after we’ve created, with the help of many people in this room, 12 million new jobs—more jobs created in two years than any president has created in four years.”

And in a speech to a chamber with dozens of lawmakers who have questioned the legitimacy of American elections, he described the country’s democracy as “bruised” but “unbowed and unbroken” in the aftermath of the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

Biden also proposed extending some of his more popular achievements. He called for Congress to pass a provision that would cap the cost of insulin at $35 per month in the private insurance market. Congressional Democrats and the administration tried to pass such a measure last year, but it was modified to apply only to people on Medicare, the health insurance program for seniors, after objections from Senate Republicans.

The expanded proposal is highly unlikely to gain traction among Republican lawmakers despite its popularity across party lines. But White House officials are seeking to use the issue to hammer Republicans for blocking action to lower Americans’ health-care costs.

Biden also addressed the alleged Chinese spy balloon that flew across much of the continental United States last week before a U.S. military aircraft shot it down over the Atlantic coast on Saturday, February 4. Biden said he has made clear to Chinese President Xi Jinping that the United States seeks competition with Beijing rather than conflict, but added, “I will make no apologies that we are investing to make America strong.”

He also reiterated his oft-stated view that China is the biggest long-term threat to American interests. “Make no mistake about it: As we made clear last week, if China’s threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country,” he said. “And we did.”

The president then touted the bipartisan infrastructure law, another part of the speech that invited bipartisan applause:

“To my Republican friends who voted against it but still ask to fund projects in their districts, don’t worry. I promised to be the president for all Americans,” Biden said. “We’ll fund your projects. And I’ll see you at the groundbreaking.”

Biden also announced new standards to require construction materials used in federal infrastructure projects to be made in the United States, which prompted a standing ovation from both Democrats and Republicans, including McCarthy.

Biden also took on the war in Ukraine, calling Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade the country last February “a test for the ages.” He sought to emphasize why the United States should be committed to the war effort “as long as it takes” at a time when Republicans are showing more wariness about the amount of aid the United States is sending.

The president also addressed the spate of gun violence that has rocked several communities, with dozens of mass shootings already this year. Biden reiterated his call for a federal ban on assault weapons Tuesday, although Republican lawmakers have said such a bill is a nonstarter.

One of first lady Jill Biden’s guests at the event was 26-year-old Brandon Tsay, who disarmed a man who is accused of killing 11 people in Monterey Park, California, last month. Tsay was among several guests recognized by the president, who called on Congress to go beyond praise for the young man and take action to reduce gun violence.

Research contact: @washingtonpost