An upbeat President Joe Biden deployed his ground game in tonight’s 2023 State of the Union address, delivering a speech featuring a set of proposals to strengthen the economic security of the middle class and recognizing that the country is tired of impasse, anger and division in its national government.
The forty-sixth president did not try to equal the soaring eloquence of Barack Obama and did not come near the windy self-absorption of Donald Trump. The speech was lengthy – one hour and twelve minutes by this writer’s count – but demonstrated that eighty-two year-old Biden still has enthusiasm and drive.
“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,” said Biden. “I get that. That’s why we’re building an economy where no one is left behind.”
He laid out a program in a challenge to Republicans, who have none and are embroiled in culture wars. It was a relatable, understandable, connecting speech.
The President’s mantra? “Finish the job!”
His agenda? To name a few planks: Build on the cap in insulin costs to Medicare recipients, enacted in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act, by capping costs for all Americans. Bring prescription drug prices under control. And stop the fleecing of American consumers through manipulation of airline fares, “service fees” for no discernible service, and “resort fees” by hotels that are not resorts.
A native of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Biden dwelt on restoring American manufacturing. He cited such measures as the CHIPS and Science Act, which prompted Intel to create 10,000 jobs in Columbus, Ohio. He spoke of restoring the Ohio River bridge linking Kentucky and Ohio, where a $1.2 billion upgrade is underway thanks to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R‑Kentucky, joined Biden at the bridge dedication. The president used McConnell’s presence in what was a central theme and gambit, calling for cooperation and goading the far-right which has gained influence in the regime of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
McCarthy sat glumly behind the president.
“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 Congress,” said Biden. “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.”
The speech infuriated haters among House Republicans. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, R‑Georgia, could be heard shouting “Liar!” Senator Ted Cruz, R‑Texas, shook his head and tweeted: “It was an angry, divisive and fundamentally dishonest speech.” Added Senator Marsha Blackburn, R‑Tennessee, “The American people aren’t buying Biden’s revisionist history of the economy.”
But the country is working again. Biden savored the fact that 12 million jobs have been created on his watch, and that unemployment at 3.4% is at a fifty year low. He pointed to 800,000 new manufacturing jobs, and said the nation’s supply chain will again “begin in America.”
Angry? Biden toyed with Republicans who have threatened to block raising the debt ceiling and demanded deep budget cuts as a price.
“We’re not going to be moved into being threatened to default on the debt,” said the president, citing threats to take the American economy hostage.
He seized upon a proposal by Senator Rick Scott, R‑Florida, that all federal programs should sunset every five years and face renewal by Congress.
That includes Medicare and Social Security, said Biden.
Angry shouts and denials came from Republican House members.
Biden is not a regal leader. He appeared to enjoy himself, joking that the reaction showed that everyone was in agreement that the nation’s social contract should not be pierced. This made the far right even angrier.
After all, more than one hundred and forty ultra MAGA House Republicans voted against certifying his 2020 election victory.
The President took particular delight in noting that many Republicans voted against the bipartisan Infrastructure bill, but are now clamoring for and claiming credit for projects in their districts.
“I promised to be the president for all Americans,” he quipped. “We’ll fund these projects and I’ll see you at the groundbreaking.”
The right’s reaction was visibly ugly to some viewers.
“The behavior of a sizable group of Republican legislators tonight was outrageous and disgusting,” tweeted Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Institute of Politics. “Their screaming and catcalling at the President was obscene. Free speech? Sure. Decorum and courtesy. Dead.”
The Republicans’ baggage and visions were displayed at times. Representative George Santos, R‑New York — he of vast lies on his resume — found a place next to the aisle as luminaries entered the chamber. He got a sharp rebuke from Senator Mitt Romney, R‑Utah, who later said of Santos: “He shouldn’t be in Congress. And they’re gonna go through the process of hopefully getting him out. But he shouldn’t be there and if he had any shame at all, he wouldn’t be there.”
When Biden touted U.S. defense of Ukraine, and the alliance that has sent billions in military and economic assistance, some Republicans joined in ovations, while others sat in stony silence. The invasion was, in Biden’s words, “a test for the ages. A test for America. A test for the world.”
Washington’s congressional delegation played a not inconsiderable role in the achievements touted by Biden as bringing America back from the pandemic that has claimed more than one million lives and, for a time, virtually shut down the economy.
Senator Maria Cantwell, D‑Washington, managed the CHIPS and Science Act with hopes of restoring microchip manufacturing, largely lost to Asia.
The administration has delivered “historic investments in our infrastructure, manufacturing, science and innovation,” she said in a statement.
“We must build on that progress and turn those investments into real solutions that will make our nation and our manufacturing competitive, bring more good-paying jobs back to America, and build a resilient economy for the future.”
Representative Suzan DelBene, D‑Washington, chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, charged with retaking the House by taking advantage of the boorish right-wing crazies and Speaker McCarthy’s many concessions to them.
“President Biden emphasized the urgent need to renew the expanded Child Tax Credit that cut childhood poverty in half and benefited millions of children nationwide,” said DelBene. “The investment kept families afloat during the pandemic and helped parents pay bills, put enough food on the table, and afford other expenses for their kids, like child care and diapers.”
Biden delivered a strong speech and was on his game. It was a down-to-earth speech directed to millions of watchers beyond the House chamber.