US President Joe Biden had two missions Tuesday night in his State of the Nation address to a recently divided Congress with Republicans controlling the House of Representatives.
The first was to defend his economic record and achievements over the past two years, setting the stage for a 2024 re-election bid that could be launched in the coming weeks. “We were sent here to get the job done,” Biden said.
His second task, undoubtedly more important, was to show that at the age of 80 he still has the strength to confront the Republicans and prevail in another presidential campaign, whether it is a rematch against Donald Trump or another candidate.
The result was one of the sharpest public interventions of Biden’s presidency, in which he went off script on several occasions to respond to Republican jokes and taunts on issues ranging from the debt ceiling to smuggled fentanyl and immigration.
The Democrats came out delighted. “Take this speech to the track in 2024. . . this should allay concerns about a Biden candidacy,” said Jess O’Connell, a Democratic strategist and founder of consulting firm Newco Strategies.
Biden is “ready to work with Republicans wherever they can and will.” . .[But]if some of these new Republicans think they can intimidate him, they don’t know Joe,” she added.
Most of Biden’s address focused on domestic policy, particularly regarding the economy, where the president’s approval rating is low. He has sought to link the investments and subsidies in his multi-trillion dollar economic packages more directly to the lives of middle- and lower-income households, stressing that his goal is to help “people who have been forgotten.”
He also sought to draw a contrast between his policies and those of congressional Republicans, forming early battle lines in likely legislative clashes with Congress as well as future Republican presidential challengers. The president warned them not to “hold the economy hostage” by not raising the debt ceiling, which could lead to a default, and said he would veto any effort to pass a national abortion ban.
There were several highlights during the evening. Several Republican lawmakers shouted “liar” as Biden accused Republicans of wanting to cut Social Security and Medicare, government pension programs and health care for the elderly. Biden fired back in a conversation that ended with applause from Republicans with his comments about never sacrificing programs.
Later in the speech, several Republicans again heckled the president as he discussed the number of Americans dying from fentanyl overdoses, shouting, “It’s your fault!” The taunts appeared to draw the disapproval of Kevin McCarthy, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, who told reporters earlier Tuesday that Republicans were “not going to play childish games.”
Joe Manchin, a Democratic senator from West Virginia, said of the taunts directed at the president: “It’s just not acceptable in the kind of country we are and the leader of the free world.”
Mitt Romney had earlier gotten into a bit of a spat with George Santos, the New York Republican congressman who allegedly fabricated much of his resume and life story, over an attempt to shake the president’s hand. “This is not the House of Representatives,” Romney said later, according to Politico. “I wish there was more decency, but it seems like we just keep going downhill.”
The foreign policy portion of Biden’s speech was more limited than in 2022, although he did make sharp, if relatively brief, comments about China following the furor over the spy balloon that the US shot down last week.
Biden emphasized that Washington does not want a “conflict” with Beijing, but that the country will “act” to protect its sovereignty. He then claimed that autocracies are getting weaker, not stronger – and he ran away again. “Name me a world leader who would trade places with Xi Jinping – name me one, name me one!” he joked.
Biden has also clashed with the wealthy and big business, particularly oil and pharmaceutical companies, as he called for a new billionaire tax, quadrupling the 1 percent tax passed last year on stock buybacks and expanding insulin price caps — another hint of potential the theme of the 2024 campaign.
And in light of the latest episodes of gun violence and police brutality in the US, Biden felt pressure to show he remains committed to tackling the problem, renewing his call for an assault weapons ban and police reform after last month’s fatal beating of Tire Nichols, whose parents were in the audience.
At the end of the speech, when Joaquin Castro, a Democratic representative from Texas, was asked outside the chamber if he would support Biden in 2024, he replied, “Oh yes.”
“If Joe Biden wants to be nominated in 2024, he will be nominated.”