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Wednesday, February 08, 2023

Three takeaways from Biden’s State of the Union address

Three takeaways from Biden’s State of the Union address

President Biden delivered his second State of the Union address on Tuesday night, and his first with Republicans in control of the House after they reclaimed control of the chamber in the 2022 election. Biden is not only dealing with a newly divided Congress, but is ramping up for what’s expected to be his campaign for reelection.

Below are some takeaways from the speech.

1. A bipartisan theme, with some tough words sprinkled in

The last time Biden gave a major speech was back in September, when he delivered some tough words in prime time address about Republican efforts to overturn the 2020 election, and said that “MAGA Republicans” posed a threat to democracy.

Tuesday’s speech was much more aspirational, albeit with some tense moments mixed in. And despite what could be an acrimonious 2024 campaign ahead, Biden clearly made the decision to preach extensively about bipartisanship.

At the start of his speech, he nodded to both Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) ascent to the House speaker role and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) newfound status as the longest-serving Senate leader in history.

He pitched his first two years in office as a surprising win for bipartisanship, saying it proved the doubters wrong about the two sides’ ability to come together on issues like infrastructure and toxic burn pits.

“To my Republican friends, if we could work together the last Congress, there’s no reason we can’t work together and find consensus on important things in this Congress as well,” Biden said.

Biden focused specifically on the infrastructure law, which earned significant GOP votes in the Senate — a moment which came with some gentle ribbing. (Earlier moments had, too — as when Biden paired his congratulations to McConnell with praise for Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), for winning a “slightly bigger majority.”)

“I want to thank my Republican friends who voted for the law, and my Republican friends who voted against it as well,” Biden said. “I still get asked to fund the projects in those districts as well. But don’t worry. I promised I’d be a president for all Americans.”

It wasn’t all love in the building, of course. Biden delivered some tough lines on the upcoming debt ceiling debate, pointing to high deficits under former president Donald Trump and accusing Republicans of attempted hostage-taking — which drew audible protests.

“Under the previous administration, America’s deficit went up four years in a row,” Biden said. “Because of those record deficits, no president added more to the national debt in any four years than my predecessor.”

He added, amid some GOP jeers: “[Republicans] lifted the debt ceiling three times without preconditions or crisis.”

Republicans took particular exception to Biden alluding to a plan promoted by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) to sunset all federal program after five years and force their reauthorization, which Democrats argued could apply to popular entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. The GOP has largely shunned Scott’s plan, and many prominent Republicans have insisted they won’t cut Social Security and Medicare.

McCarthy said ahead of the speech that he had asked Biden not to employ phrases used in the past like “extreme MAGA Republicans.” Biden did not use such a phrase Tuesday.

2. A preview of 2024 messaging

Biden’s dig at Trump-era deficits wasn’t the only indicator of the upcoming presidential race. He also geared his speech extensively to blue-collar voters.

He dinged Big Oil for reaping record profits when gas prices were at record highs, Big Pharma for drug prices and Big Tech for collecting too much personal information, especially on children. He also said he would prohibit companies from requiring workers to sign noncompete agreements.

He focused heavily on supporting American manufacturing and American-made products, debuting new standards which would require all construction materials used in federal infrastructure projects to be made domestically: “Buy American has been the law of the land since 1933. But for too long, past administrations — Democrat and Republican — have fought to get around it,” he said. “Not anymore.”

Biden also devoted a sizable chunk of his speech to another issue clearly aimed at appealing to everyday Americans. He hailed the Junk Fee Prevention Act, which would crack down on things like airlines charging fees for families to sit together, prohibit high ticket fees for concerts and events, and prevent media companies from charging hundreds of dollars to customers who switch services. (New Washington Post-ABC News polling suggests this goal has been a struggle for the president, despite the legislation he has signed.)

“Americans are tired of being played for suckers,” Biden said. “Pass the Junk Fee Prevention Act so companies stop ripping us off.”

Biden has touched on many of these issues before, but you begin to see the beginnings of a 2024 stump speech.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) called President Biden a liar when he discussed GOP debt-reduction plans during his State of the Union address on Feb. 7. (Video: The Washington Post)

It’s been 14 years since a Republican member of Congress appeared to cross a threshold by yelling “You lie” at Barack Obama during a speech to a joint session of Congress. Tuesday’s speech marked the continued trend toward partisan raucousness during what was once a much more staid affair.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), perhaps predictably, repeated Rep. Joe Wilson’s (R-S.C.) outburst from 2009 when Biden brought up Medicare and Social Security. (It’s worth noting that Biden qualified his comments about Republican support for Scott’s plan by emphasizing: “I’m not saying it’s a majority,” but he was jeered anyway. McCarthy shook his head while seated behind Biden.)

Biden responded to all this by suggesting it was an important moment, with Republicans so loudly taking issue with the idea that they would target entitlements: “I’m glad to see — you know, I enjoy conversion.”

When Biden brought up fentanyl deaths, he was met with a response of: “It’s your fault!” Republicans also took exception to his comments about other issues, including gun control and the border. The latter instance elicited a notable response from McCarthy: While he sat stone-faced for much of the speech, the GOP outcry drew a demonstrative blink from the House speaker, who shushed his conference. McCarthy earlier Tuesday had promised no “childish” games, specifically citing then-House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) having ripped up a copy of Trump’s speech after the 2020 State of the Union address.

And as the speech wore on, we got a sense for why, perhaps, it got so contentious. In contrast to McCarthy’s shushing, Trump on Truth Social attacked “RINO” — Republican in Name Only — party members for “jumping up and down with applause for the wrong reasons!”

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