President Joe Biden’s second ever State of the Union Address to the US Congress on Tuesday, February 7th was filled with optimism for the future– even in the face of open hostility.
The spectacle of Biden smiling and offering a pointed riposte through multiple rounds of heckling from some House Republicans was, in many ways, an apt illustration of his presidency and a useful preview of his likely 2024 candidacy.
A majority of Americans say he hasn’t accomplished much, many Democrats aren’t thrilled at the prospect of him running for reelection and he faces clear disdain from most Republicans.
But Biden powered through. Delivering what was widely viewed as a test run for his reelection announcement, Biden claimed credit for progress made during his first two years in office while stressing the job isn’t finished.
He faced sometimes-unruly Republicans, with whom he spiritedly sparred from the podium on spending cuts. The feisty display drew cheers inside the White House and offered the best preview to date of the energy Biden hopes to bring to the campaign trail soon.
The speech carried a strain of populism rooted in strengthening the middle class – vintage Biden, but delivered at a pivotal moment for his political future.
No president enters his State of the Union wanting to recite a laundry list of accomplishments and proposals, but – almost inevitably – the speech often veers in that direction. Biden’s was no different, even as the president sought to tie everything together with a refrain of “finish the job” – a phrase that appeared 12 times in his prepared text.
Rather than tout any one accomplishment, however, Biden hoped to address the national mood, one that remains downbeat even as the economy improves and the country attempts to return to normal amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Biden spars with sometimes-unruly Republicans
In a room full of elected officials, identifying an adult shouldn’t be difficult. But heading into Tuesday’s speech, both Republican leaders and Biden’s team telegraphed a desire to act as the night’s “adult in the room” – the mature voice seeking common ground and lowering the temperature.
For the first 45 minutes of Biden’s address, that appeared to be the play for both sides. But when Biden began castigating Republicans for plans that would slash Social Security and Medicare, the decorum dropped.
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For Biden, House Republicans act as a useful foil as he prepares to announce his intentions for 2024. His jousting on Tuesday was the best glimpse of how he’ll approach his candidacy, at least until a Republican opponent emerges from the GOP primary process.
White House officials were thrilled by the off script back and forth. “Couldn’t have written a better moment,” one official said. More than the substantive back and forth, one official noted how it appeared to animate Biden in real time.
“He gets energy from his audience,” the official said. It’s not a new view on how Biden operates – his advisers constantly talk about how he finds his energy from engaging with people.
Biden and his team believe a serious focus on governing contrasts favorably with House Republicans, who they accuse of threatening to send the nation into default and piling up distractions as they investigate the president and his family.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy entered the speech vowing to treat Biden respectfully – and urging his Republican colleagues to do the same. It was a tall order, given the loose grasp he has on his conference and the propensity from certain Republicans for stunts.
As lawmakers like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene interrupted Biden, McCarthy was silent – but his glare into the crowd spoke for itself. Later he found himself shushing his conference multiple times at outbursts interrupted the president.
For the third year in a row, Biden set the record for the oldest president to deliver an address to a joint session of Congress. It’s an underlying fact of his presidency: No one older has ever served.
As Biden prepares to ask voters to keep him in office until he is 86, it was critical he look and sound like someone who is able to keep doing the job.
His delivery was energetic, even if he stumbled over a few of his prepared lines. When Republicans interrupted him, he responded quickly, deftly turning their heckles back around into challenges.
Over the weekend at Camp David, aides set up a podium, microphone, lights and teleprompter in a conference room inside the Laurel Lodge for Biden to practice his speech with his team. The potential for hecklers was something White House officials had in mind as they prepared for the speech.
At the White House, a similar set up has been used in the Map Room to practice the address. Aides were focused on the message – but also the language, ensuring the speech lent itself to a vigorous presentation. After all, for many in Biden’s television audience, Tuesday’s speech was one of the only times they actually heard and saw the president this year.
Perhaps more than his previous two addresses to Congress, Tuesday’s speech was salted with riffs and lines that appear nearly every time he speaks: inherited wisdoms from his father, anecdotes about inequality and his views of the middle class.
“So many of you feel like you’ve just been forgotten,” he said, directly appealing to a demographic that used to vote reliably for Democrats but has more recently turned to the GOP.
“Amid the economic upheaval of the past four decades, too many people have been left behind or treated like they’re invisible. Maybe that’s you, watching at home,” he said. “You wonder whether a path even exists anymore for you and your children to get ahead without moving away.”
“I get that,” he said. Appearing for the first time in front of a divided Congress, Biden also leaned into his record working across the aisle – even as he faced heckling from Republicans.
In many ways, both Biden and McCarthy hoped a more mature showing would set the tone for the next two years of divided government, even if they remain sharply divided on policy.
Biden hoped in his speech to bridge that gap, to demonstrate he cares about what Americans care about and to identify the problems he’s looking to fix.
His focus on highly specific issues – like eliminating “junk fees” for consumers or reining in tech companies – are areas the White House believes will resonate with Americans who aren’t necessarily attuned to the ins-and-outs of Washington.
At moments, his speech seemed tailor-made for a nation of annoyed consumers, down to annoyances about baggage fees on airlines and fine print on hotel bills.
“Americans are tired of being played for suckers,” he said, listing off the litany of common grievances.
But Biden and his team are acutely aware that simply telling people their lives are improving won’t cut it – they have to actually feel it. Many of the accomplishments Biden helped passed over the past two years are still in the implementation phase, making their effects elusive for now.
Biden seemed to acknowledge that when he urged lawmakers to extend a price cap on insulin – a benefit that is still coming into effect. (Courtesy: CNN)