WASHINGTON — In a State of the Union address that began as a bipartisan appeal, President Biden appeared combative and feisty at times as he sparred with Republicans over his legislative record, the federal deficit and border security.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., at one point tried to quiet hecklers who shouted as the president called on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform and help him address border security.
Biden, who spoke for roughly an hour, sought to reassure Americans that he has repaired the economic damage wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. He reminded his critics that he has repeatedly defied predictions that he would be unable to work across the aisle.
“I don’t want to ruin your reputation,” Biden quipped to McCarthy early in his speech, “but I look forward to working with you.”
The president has yet to announce whether he’s officially running for re-election, but aides say he’ll make a decision in the coming weeks. His prime-time speech before a divided Congress and millions of Americans was an opportunity to celebrate the legislation he has signed, explain his efforts to curb inflation and lay out his vision for the next two years
The address was also an opportunity for Biden to soft-launch his all but certain 2024 campaign, reaffirming his pitch that he’s a steady hand who’s built his career on bipartisanship.
“We’re often told that Democrats and Republicans can’t work together. But over these past two years, we proved the cynics and the naysayers wrong,” he told the House chamber. “To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can’t work together in this new Congress.”
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The speech also offered Biden, who turned 80 in November, a chance to convince voters and members of his own party that he is able to endure another four years.
But the public is pessimistic about the country’s future and the prospect of a second Biden term. About three-quarters of U.S. adults say the country is not headed in the right direction, compared with a quarter who say things are on the right track, an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll released Monday found. Just 37% of Democrats said they want Biden to seek a second term, a notable drop from the 52% who said the same in the run-up to the midterm elections in November.
A State of the Union address “is an impossible speech to give for any president,” said William Howell, an American politics professor at the University of Chicago. “It’s a speech that has to politically attend to a lot of competing claims and it comes at a time when there’s acute uncertainty about the state of the world and the state of the economy.”
Biden navigated both old and new challenges in his remarks, appealing to Western allies and the American public to stand united behind Ukraine as Russia’s invasion lurches into a second year. He renewed calls for Congress to pass a long-sought police reform bill following the brutal police killing of a Black man in Memphis and repeated a plea to reinstate an assault weapons ban in the wake of a pair of mass shootings in California.
“There’s no words to describe the heartbreak and grief of losing a child, but imagine what it’s like to lose a child at the hands of the law,” Biden said. “Equal protection under the law; that’s the covenant we have with each other in America.”
Biden saved some of his sharpest rhetoric for China after the U.S. shot down a Chinese spy balloon that swept across U.S. airspace. China has maintained the balloon was a research vessel being used for meteorological investigation and that it accidentally drifted into U.S. airspace. But the episode damaged the already fragile relationship between the two superpowers and Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a planned trip to Beijing in protest.
“Make no mistake: as we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did,” he said.
The president also called for a cap on insulin costs for privately insured patients and urged lawmakers to close the coverage gap in GOP-led states that have refused to accept billions of dollars in federal money to expand Medicaid to more poor and middle-class people.
The majority of the president’s speech focused on amplifying his economic message as he looks to ensure Americans feel the impact of his policies. The president urged Congress to pass a minimum tax on billionaires and proposed new guidance that would require most federal infrastructure projects to use construction materials made in the U.S.
“Reward work, not just wealth,” Biden said. “Because no billionaire should pay a lower tax rate than a school teacher or a firefighter.”
Biden pointed to January labor data that showed employers added more than half a million jobs while the unemployment rate fell to 3.4% – the lowest in more than half a century – as evidence that his plan is working and his policies have helped tame inflation.
Despite recent job gains and indicators that inflation is abating, recent surveys show the public remains largely downbeat about Biden’s job performance. The president’s approval rating remains stubbornly at 42%, largely unchanged from when he last delivered his first State of the Union a year ago (41%).
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Since he took office, Biden has urged members of his party to apply the lessons learned from the Obama years by effectively communicating their achievements to voters – a strategy he said his former boss was hesitant to use after the passage of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
But the Biden White House has also struggled to convince voters that he’s delivered on his promise to make their lives easier. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Monday found 62% of Americans say Biden has not accomplished “very much” or “little or nothing” during his first two years in office, compared with 36% who say he accomplished “a great deal” or “a good amount.”
One of the biggest threats to Biden’s economic record was seated behind him on the dais: McCarthy is locked in a standoff with Biden over the federal deficit and has refused to raise the debt limit unless the president commits to unspecified cuts on future spending. If the two leaders are unable to reach a deal, the U.S. would default on its debt, rattling financial markets and wreaking economic havoc.
Biden’s bipartisan tone shifted as he attacked some Republicans for wanting to “sunset” Medicare and Social Security every five years. The comments drew Republican jeers, with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, R-Ga., rising to call Biden a liar.
“That was part of the deal, guys. Look it up,” he said as he veered from scripted remarks. “If anyone tries to cut Social Security, I will stop them. And if anyone tries to cut Medicare, I will stop them. I will not allow them to be taken away. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever.”
But he avoided the political rhetoric that defined his midterm campaign message in which he attacked “MAGA Republicans” who he said were a threat to democracy. Instead, he appealed to Congress to work together on four bipartisan goals: fighting cancer, improving veteran’s healthcare, combating the opioid crisis and ensuring access to mental health care.
Though Biden may run the risk of looking out of touch with voters’ economic anxiety, any State of the Union address is an important moment “to be pretty aggressive about telling the positive story, said Michael Waldman, a chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton who worked on four State of the Union and two inaugural addresses.
“The public often doesn’t believe good news,” Waldman said, noting that “public perception often lags pretty far behind reality.”
Most presidents face a divided Congress after their first midterm election. But in Biden’s case, November’s elections were not much of a rebuke of his administration. Democrats kept losses in the House to well below the historic average and gained a seat in the Senate. The president’s party also won two governorships and control of four more state legislative chambers.
White House officials say one reason for that outcome was Biden’s ability to draw a clear distinction with former President Donald Trump and right-wing Republicans who support him.
House Republicans, who have vowed to be a roadblock during Biden’s remaining time in office, are ramping up their own investigations of the president, his administration and his family. The president is also facing a special counsel investigation into whether he mishandled classified documents. GOP members who have raised eyebrows in recent months will provide the visual contrast the president will be looking for, Waldman said.
“Presidents are very aware of how every word and every comma will be used — who’s going to cheer, who’s going to scowl,” Waldman said. “Every time the camera pans to George Santos or Marjorie Taylor Greene is a win. He’s got some foils to play off against.”
The audience included visible reminders of policy goals that have remained out of reach for Democrats. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have called on Congress to renew talks on intractable issues including gun safety, police accountability and immigration.
He repeated those appeals while standing before RowVaughn and Rodney Wells, the mother and stepfather of Tyre Nichols, who was fatally beaten by five Memphis police officers, Brandon Tsay, who disarmed the Monterey Park gunman as he entered a second dance club, listened as Biden challenged lawmakers to enact stricter gun control measures.
“He saved lives. It’s time we do the same as well,” Biden said of Tsay. “Ban assault weapons once and for all.”
A total of 26 guests who “personify issues or themes to be addressed” during the speech were invited to sit with First Lady Jill Biden, the White House said in a statement Tuesday. Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S., U2 frontman and Irish rock star Bono and Paul Pelosi, husband of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., were also in attendance.