n his second State of the Union address, Biden addressed one of the most boisterous congressional audiences in recent history – offering the country and the GOP insight into how he plans to govern.
A fiery and confident President Joe Biden let Republicans and the country know Tuesday night what they should expect from him as he begins his third year as president and likely his reelection campaign: He’ll eagerly work with Republicans where he can but will defiantly take them on when he feels provoked.
In his second State of the Union address, Biden alternately flattered Republicans, gently teased them and directly challenged them in the room when they hooted and shouted out objections during Biden’s remarks on Social Security, tax fairness and drugs coming over the border.
Unlike a typical State of the Union address, in which the president offers up a policy agenda for the coming year, Biden’s speech was unambitious, drawing on proposals he has already offered and illustrated by personal anecdotes he has told many times.
With a newly divided Congress making passage of any major Democratic legislation unlikely, Biden ticked off items he hoped the chamber could work on together, including policing reform, ending cancer and dealing with drug addiction. And he talked up agenda items not likely to get bipartisan action, such as hiking taxes on the rich, expanding abortion access and moving away from fossil fuels.
Biden addressed what was one of the most boisterous congressional audiences in recent history, with Democrats jumping to their feet in approval even before the president finished a sentence and Republicans laughing, jeering and on occasion shouting protestations when Biden called them out on various issues.
When Biden talked about how “some” Republicans want to cut Social Security and Medicare, several GOP members shouted out that he was wrong. Biden was presumably referring to various calls for entitlement programs be reformed, to a 2022 GOP campaign memo calling for all federal programs, including Social Security and Medicare, to be reevaluated every five years, and calls from some Republicans to privatize part of the retirement benefit.
Biden stopped, stared directly at the shouters with a hint of a smile, and said, “We all agree? Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right?” He then had the entire chamber stand in approval when he continued his ad-lib.
“Let’s stand up for seniors!” Biden said.
Biden denounced the attack on American democracy on Jan. 6 – even as those who voted to keep him from assuming office after being elected sat facing him in the House chamber. But Biden ended his attack on the “Big Lie” by noting the presence of Paul Pelosi, who was brutally beaten when an attacker came to his and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco home to confront her.
With the former speaker in the chamber and her husband, recovered and sitting in first lady Jill Biden’s box in the gallery, almost all members stood to applaud.
The product of an earlier, more cooperative time on Capitol Hill, Biden started his address as if he were speaking during a bygone era. He congratulated House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on his election to the post – a stark contrast from the painfully drawn-out process that took 15 ballots before the California Republican was made speaker.
“I don’t want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to working with you,” Biden said, before also singling out Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell for being the longest serving Senate leader in history, Democratic Leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York for being the first Black person in the post, and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi for her long service in the job.
“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. The people sent us a clear message,” Biden said. “Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict, gets us nowhere.”
Biden’s call for unity was met by a body where partisan and ideological divisions have only become exacerbated with the flip in House control after the midterms and the burgeoning presidential campaign season.
Members faced off rhetorically – with Democrats crowing about Biden’s record and Republicans slamming the president’s speech even before Biden left the White House for the drive up Pennsylvania Avenue for his speech.
And they took jabs at each other by proxy as well. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus wore pins with “1870” on them to note the case of the first known, free Black man to be killed by police. Some Republicans wore pins in the shape of an assault weapon.
While a number of Democrats brought guests whose families had been touched by gun violence, GOP members brought law enforcement officials, underscoring their efforts to cast Biden as anti-police.
And despite reported efforts by McCarthy to keep his caucus from getting out of control, the party’s rogue members were characteristically bombastic. At one point, the speaker appeared to visibly shush his caucus – to no avail.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia stood, pointed and yelled. One Republican screamed, “It’s your fault!” when Biden talked about stopping the flow of fentanyl over the border.
Biden got little approval from the GOP side when he talked about his own record and agenda, including capping the price of insulin at $35 a month for seniors and calling for the cap to be extended to all diabetes patients. That line may have been directed at the public, which, according to polls, does not think Biden has done much to address the cost of prescription drugs.
His calls for higher taxes for billionaires and big corporations got a grim look from McCarthy and groans from the GOP side of the aisle. Nor was his reference to his handling of the COVID-19 epidemic well received by Republicans.
“Two years ago, COVID had shut down our businesses, closed our schools, and robbed us of so much. Today, COVID no longer controls our lives,” Biden said. As if to punctuate his point, just a single lawmaker – Sen. Bernie Sanders, Vermont independent – was wearing a mask in the House well.
Biden taunted his Republican colleagues when he discussed the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, saying he’d show up for the groundbreaking of projects – even in districts represented by Republicans who voted against it.
Republicans slammed the speech as partisan and disconnected from the typical American experience.
Newly inaugurated Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders delivered the official GOP response, stoking the culture wars in her criticism.
“I’m the first woman to lead my state. And he’s the first man to surrender his presidency to a woke mob that can’t even tell you what a woman is,” she said. Sanders, who was press secretary for the man who might face off against Biden – Donald Trump – also called for a change to a “new generation” of Republicans, a not-so-subtle reference to Biden’s age.
But there were signals from Republicans, too, that they could get on board.
Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, called the address “an angry speech” that “indicated a complete unwillingness to change course we’re on.” And Sen. Josh Hawley, Missouri Republican, said the speech was an “alternate reality.”
“It was like listening to Ronald Reagan in 1984, ‘Morning in America,’ except for most Americans they say that their economic prospects are worse, that their family is less safe, that their neighborhood is in shambles and they can’t get good paying jobs,” Hawley told reporters.
A smiling Biden waited until the end of the address to deliver the answer inherently demanded by the event itself.
“The state of the union is strong,” Biden bellowed. And despite being heckled by members of his opposing party, Biden concluded with a call for unity.
“We must see each other not as enemies but as fellow Americans. We are a good people, the only nation in the world built on an idea,” Biden said.