(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden on Tuesday delivered his second State of the Union address, balancing a push for bipartisanship in a divided Washington and advocacy for his own policies heading into next year’s election.
Standing in front of Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. — a visual reminder of the back-and-forth in store for at least the next two years — Biden drew applause lines for pleas for cooperation and heckles over thrown elbows for Republican policies.
A victory lap, but pleas for cooperation
Biden started the speech with his version of a victory lap, touting surprisingly strong job growth and a string of legislative achievements as well as continued consensus in supporting Ukraine against Russia. He also noted Democrats in November expanded their majority in the Senate.
“Unemployment rate at 3.4%, a 50-year low. Near record unemployment for Black and Hispanic workers,” he said. “We’ve already created, with your help, 800,000 good-paying manufacturing jobs, the fastest growth in 40 years.”
But throughout his speech, Biden repeatedly said that the country’s accomplishments were achieved with “your help” — ad libs that were not included in his prepared remarks — and insisted that he looked forward to working with Republicans.
“Mr. Speaker, I don’t want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to working together,” he said at the top of his speech.
Biden went on to boast of 300 bipartisan laws that he signed, maintaining that more could be on the way — if the House, under new GOP management, would work with him despite conservatives campaigning on being a check on what they said was a reckless, dangerous administration.
“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 new Congress,” he 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.”
Still, heckles throughout
Despite Biden’s calls for bonhomie — and jovial moments like him FaceTiming with a congressman’s baby son at home after his speech — the president was heckled throughout his remarks.
Biden, reprising an attack line employed in recent months, accused Republicans of seeking to cut funds for Social Security and Medicare, seeming to pin the accusation on a plan released by Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., that would sunset all federal funding after five years and make money for the program repeatedly subject to renewal.
However, McCarthy has said such cuts are “off the table” as they negotiate on lifting the debt ceiling, sparking a wave of boos and Republicans asking for Biden to name the people pushing for the cuts.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., a populist firebrand, was heard calling Biden a liar — a callback to a similar accusation leveled at former President Barack Obama during one of his congressional speeches that marked a sharp break of that era’s rules of decorum.
“I will not allow them to be taken away,” Biden said of the programs after the uproar, with Republicans saying that’s not going to be a problem.
Elbows were also thrown when Biden discussed the opioid crisis, with one Republican shouting “it’s your fault” when he lamented the spread of fentanyl.
Biden also took jabs of his own, saying that Republicans on the campaign trail have been boasting of the benefits of the bipartisan infrastructure law they opposed.
“To my Republican friends who voted against it but still ask to fund projects in their districts, don’t worry,” Biden said, joking that money would still go to areas they represent.
Pushing for his agenda in the new Congress — and new election cycle
Besides the push for bipartisan or share of barbs — depending on the moment — Biden also took the opportunity to lay out sprawling policies he wants advanced in the next two years.
Heading into an expected reelection bid, Biden leaned heavily on economic messaging, pushing for wealthy individuals and corporations to pay more taxes, renewing the expanded child tax credit and eliminating junk fees for people paying for entertainment.
“The idea that in 2020, 55 of the largest companies in America, the Fortune 500, made $40 billion in profits and paid zero in federal income taxes? Folks, simply not fair. But now, because of the law I signed, billion-dollar companies have to pay a minimum of 15%. God love them,” he said.
“Under my plan, nobody earning less than $400,000 a year will pay an additional penny in taxes. Nobody. Not one penny. But let’s finish the job, there’s more to do,” he said. “No billionaire should pay a lower tax rate than a school teacher or a firefighter.”
Biden also touched on a spate of social issues, repeating his calls for an assault-style weapons ban and the codification of federal abortion rights — two issues that drew head shakes from Republicans and standing ovations from most Democrats.
Biden keeps up uphill climb on policing reform
The president also pushed for criminal justice changes, praising the parents of Tyre Nichols, the Black man who recently died after being attacked by police officers in Memphis, Tennessee.
“Here’s what Tyre’s mom shared with me when I asked her how she finds the courage to carry on and speak out: with faith in God. She said her son ‘was a beautiful soul and something good will come of this,"” Biden said. “Imagine how much courage and character that takes. It’s up to us. To all of us.”
Policing reform has been a white whale for Congress since the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota in 2020 sparked calls for changes to how policing in America works.
However, bipartisan conversations have repeatedly broken down over qualified immunity, which shields police officers from lawsuits over their actions.
In response, Sarah Sanders focuses on social issues and Democratic ‘failures’
Newly elected Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave the official GOP response to Biden’s speech, focusing heavily on culture war issues and casting Biden as out of touch with the American people.
Sanders, 40, is the youngest governor in the country and swiftly contrasted her youth with Biden, who is 80 and the oldest president ever.
“I’m the first woman to lead my state. 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.
The response did not address much of what Biden discussed in his speech, particularly given the lack of deep culture war discussions in Biden’s remarks. Still, Sanders lambasted what she labeled Democrats’ emphasis on “radical” social policies.
“While you reap the consequences of their failures, the Biden administration seems more interested in woke fantasies than the hard reality Americans face every day,” she said.
“Every day, we are told that we must partake in their rituals, salute their flags, and worship their false idols, all while big government colludes with big tech to strip away the most American thing there is — your freedom of speech,” she said. “That’s not normal. It’s crazy, and it’s wrong.”
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