WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said Americans are “facing the test of our time” as he called for a bitterly divided Congress to come together to “finish the job” during a State of the Union address Tuesday that previewed themes for a reelection campaign.
Yet multiple clashes with Republican hecklers during the 72-minute speech – his first before a GOP-controlled House that has vowed to block his agenda – spoiled the bipartisan rhetoric.
Biden sought to ease concerns about an economy still plagued by high inflation and assured the country that a “bruised” democracy remains unbroken. “Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict, gets us nowhere,” Biden said in remarks directed at Republicans. “We’ve been sent here to finish the job.”
The evening, however, proved to be a stark reminder that sweeping legislative action is unlikely in a Congress where Republicans run the House and Democrats control the Senate.
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Here are five takeaways from Biden’s second State of the Union speech:
1. Setting the stage for ’24 reelection bid
Biden’s speech looked beyond the immediate battles in Congress, setting the stage for a likely reelection campaign in 2024.
He talked about priorities that are popular among progressives but unlikely to find support in a Republican-led House such as codifying abortion rights, banning assault weapons, raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations, passing comprehensive immigration reform and capping insulin prices at $35 for all Americans.
Biden spent less time articulating a vision for the next year ahead of gridlock in Congress.
“Because the soul of this nation is strong,” Biden said, turning to his 2020 campaign slogan, “because the backbone of this nation is strong, because the people of this nation are strong, the State of the Union is strong.”
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Although Biden hasn’t formally entered the 2024 campaign, an announcement is widely expected this spring.
Biden touted economic gains as the nation recovers from the pandemic, trying to convince Americans with lingering concerns about high inflation that his plan is working. Economic anxieties remain one of Biden’s biggest political vulnerabilities.
Throughout his remarks, Biden made clear that the work isn’t over. “We’re just getting started,” he said of his infrastructure law that passed in 2021. “Let’s finish the job,” he said of policing legislation that stalled in Congress last year.
2. A contentious back and forth over Social Security, Medicare
No moment captured the discord in Washington – and tense standoff over raising the debt ceiling – than when Biden accused “some Republicans” of wanting to cut Social Security and Medicare.
“Liar!” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., fired back from her seat as other Republicans booed.
“Anybody who doubts it, contact my office. I’ll give you a copy of the proposal,” Biden shot back.
The contentious back-and-forth came as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Republicans push for unspecified spending cuts as part of a deal raising the debt ceiling to avoid a government default. Biden has said the debt limit should be increased without conditions and demanded McCarthy reveal which programs he wants to axe.
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“I’m not saying it’s a majority of you. I’m not even saying it’s a significant (number.) But it’s being proposed by individuals,” Biden said, alluding to a proposal from Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., to sunset all government programs, including Social Security and Medicare, after five years.
Every time the president brought up those two programs, Republicans heckled him.
“As we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is all off the books now,” Biden said.
3. A focus on blue-collar workers ‘left behind’
Biden tried to strike a balance between celebrating economic gains – including 12 million new jobs created since he entered the White House – while recognizing that not all communities have prospered.
He talked about the “places and people that have been forgotten” in a pitch to blue-collar pitch to Americans in cities like his hometown of Scranton, Pa. that has seen manufacturing decline over decades. He promoted his administration’s “made in America” policies and efforts to turn the Rust Belt into the new manufacturing center for microchips.
“Too many people have been left behind or treated like they’re invisible,” he said. “Maybe that’s you watching at home. You remember the jobs that went away.”
More:A look at economy’s strengths, weaknesses as Biden sets to boast of record job growth in State of Union
As he described a “blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America,” Biden was also previewing a message for his 2024 bid.
Democrats have seen support among white voters who lack college degrees slip precipitously in recent years. But Biden’s gains with this group over Hillary Clinton in 2016 helped him carry Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan in 2020.
Biden tried to speak directly to these voters Tuesday.
4. Only a reference, no mention, of Chinese spy balloon
A Chinese spy balloon that crossed the continental U.S. captivated the country and drew sharp Republican criticism leading up to the speech after Biden waited until after it flew over the Atlantic Ocean before ordering the military shoot it down.
Yet Biden never mentioned the “balloon” by name during his speech and only implicitly referred to an incident that has challenged U.S.-China relations.
“I am committed to work with China where it can advance American interests and benefit the world,” Biden said. “But make no mistake: as we made clear last week, if China’s threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did.”
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Biden has said he followed the advice of the Pentagon to not have the balloon shot down while debris could have posed a danger to people on ground. But Republicans have accused the president of being weak, despite revelations from U.S. officials that spy balloons from China crossed U.S. airspace on three separate occasions during the Trump presidency.
5. An emotional call for policing reform
The most emotional tribute of Biden’s address came when the president recognized the parents of Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old Black man who was brutally beaten to death by Memphis police officers after a routine traffic stop.
Biden used their presence in the House chamber (at the invitation of First Lady Jill Biden) to renew his push the George Floyd Act, policing reform legislation that stalled in Congress last year.
“Let’s commit ourselves to make the words of Tyre’s mother come true, something good must come from this,” Biden said. “Let’s do what we know in our hearts we need to do. Let’s come together and finish the job on police reform.
The moment drew rare bipartisan applause, but this bill – like many backed by Democrats – faces a tough climb in a House now controlled by Republicans.
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.
Story Credit: usatoday.com