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US President Biden mixes bipartisanship with defiance in State of the Union address

WASHINGTON – United States President Joe Biden’s 2023 State of the Union address was his longest. The remarks this year clocked in at 72 minutes, a full 10 minutes longer than he spoke in March 2022.

State of the Union addresses have become lengthier over the years. Former president Donald Trump’s longest address – in 2019 – lasted 82 minutes. His shortest, in 2020, was 78 minutes long. In comparison, former president Barack Obama’s longest address went for 69 minutes.

Biden covered plenty of ground in his remarks on Tuesday. He touted his administration’s efforts to grow the economy, demanded more action to combat the climate crisis and called on Congress to finish work on a police reform bill. While the president chided Republicans for threatening to make cuts to Social Security and Medicare, as well as for trying to negotiate on the debt ceiling, he also invited the GOP to work with Democrats.

“You know, we’re often told that Democrats and Republicans can’t work together,” Biden said. “Over the past two years, we proved the cynics and naysayers wrong. Yes, we disagreed plenty. And yes, there were times when Democrats (were) alone. But time and time again, Democrats and Republicans came together.”

Facing a vocal and divided Congress, Biden used his second State of the Union address to emphasise popular ideas from job creation to health care, to throw Republicans on the defensive and pitch himself as a friend of ordinary Americans.

In a speech that foreshadowed his potential 2024 campaign message, Biden defended his record, made a direct appeal to blue-collar workers and sought to shift voter attitudes about the economy by touting his administration’s massive investment in the nation’s infrastructure.

Alternating between calls for Republicans to unify with Democrats and condemnation of the GOP’s least popular policies, Biden showcased both the potential for future cooperation and the likelihood of nasty partisan fights over the next two years.

“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 as well,” Biden said. “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.”

That remark was met with applause, but the comity quickly gave way to acrimony as GOP lawmakers began interrupting the president with shouts of opposition. The break in decorum came as Republicans took exception to Biden’s remarks on issues ranging from the fentanyl crisis to the national debt – and he often fired back.

United States President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress as Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-California) listen on February 7, 2023 in the House Chamber of the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Picture: Jacquelyn Martin-Pool/ Getty Images via AFP

The speech, taking place just weeks before Biden’s expected announcement that he will seek re-election, was widely viewed as a soft launch for a campaign for a second term. Adding to the tension of the moment was a looming partisan fight over the debt limit and the approach of the one-year mark of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Biden presented himself as an elder statesman capable of working across the aisle while also cutting the figure of a shrewd politician with strongly held beliefs. He outlined areas for potential bipartisanship including technology, health care and foreign policy, but sharply rejected Republican proposals on issues ranging from immigration to taxes to Social Security and Medicare.

He adopted “Let’s finish the job” as a mantra, a phrase that seemed designed to temper his triumphant declarations with a recognition that many Americans remain anxious and are far from feeling secure or prosperous.

And he sought to shape a political message of empathy and help for ordinary Americans.

“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,” Biden said. “You remember the jobs that went away, and you wonder whether a path even exists anymore for you and your children to get ahead without moving away. I get it.”

The night’s most unexpected drama was a back-and-forth between the Speaker and audience that is highly unusual, perhaps unprecedented in a presidential address to Congress. When Biden began decrying the opioid crisis, GOP lawmakers shouted back about the border.

When he noted disapprovingly that some lawmakers want to repeal the Inflation Reduction Act, some Republicans cheered. Biden ad-libbed dryly, “As a coach of mine used to say, ‘Good luck in your senior year.'”

When Biden said the Trump administration was responsible for nearly 25% of the national debt, GOP lawmakers protested vocally; Biden responded: “Check it out. Check it out.”

But the most forceful Republican response, a cascade of boos and denials, came when Biden said that some Republicans want to cut Medicare and Social Security. Several Republicans shouted loudly enough to interrupt Biden’s speech, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who exclaimed “Liar!”

US Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Georgia) and Republican members of Congress react as US President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on February 7, 2023. Picture: Jim WATSON / AFP

The president responded by professing surprise that they had changed their position and now liked those programs, saying, “I enjoy conversion.” Adding that he would veto any effort to cut Social Security and Medicare, he added wryly, “But apparently it’s not going to be a problem.”

Greene shouted interruptions during Biden’s speech several times. When Biden addressed the US competition with China, she shouted, “China’s spying on us!” That prompted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-California) to try to shush her from behind the dais.

With Republicans planning to use their majority to frustrate much of Biden’s agenda, many of the proposals the president endorsed on Tuesday night were unlikely to be realised over the next two years. In effect, he was using the biggest stage of his presidency as an opportunity to sell his vision, his record and his agenda heading toward the 2024 election.

From the record pace of job creation to growth in the manufacturing sector to new semiconductor plants and infrastructure projects, Biden presented a broadly optimistic view.

“Two years ago the economy was reeling,” he said. “I stand here tonight, after we’ve created, with the help of many people in this room, 12 million new jobs – more jobs created in two years than any president has created in four years.”

And in a speech to a chamber with dozens of lawmakers who have questioned the legitimacy of American elections, he described the country’s democracy as “bruised” but “unbowed and unbroken” in the aftermath of the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

Biden balanced his numerous calls for bipartisanship at the speech’s outset with an insistence that he would not compromise on basic questions. He began by congratulating McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), along with Democratic leaders, even turning around to shake McCarthy’s hand.

“You know, we’re often told that Democrats and Republicans can’t work together,” he said. “But over these past two years, we proved the cynics and the naysayers wrong.”

But later in the speech, Biden issued veto threats against any effort to cut Social Security, ban abortion or undo efforts to lower prescription drug costs. And he challenged Republican promises to block an increase in the government’s debt limit unless he agrees to spending cuts.

“Some of my Republican friends want to take the economy hostage unless I agree to their economic plans,” Biden said. “All of you at home should know what their plans are.”

Biden also proposed extending some of his more popular achievements.

He called for Congress to pass a provision that would cap the cost of insulin at $35 (about R620) a month in the private insurance market. Congressional Democrats and the administration tried to pass such a measure last year, but it was modified to apply only to people on Medicare, the health insurance program for seniors, after objections from Senate Republicans.

The expanded proposal is highly unlikely to gain traction among Republican lawmakers despite its popularity across party lines. But White House officials are seeking to use the issue to hammer Republicans for blocking action to lower Americans’ health-care costs.

Biden also addressed the alleged Chinese spy balloon that flew across much of the continental US last week before a US military aircraft shot it down over the Atlantic coast.

The US president said he has made clear to Chinese President Xi Jinping that the US seeks competition with Beijing rather than conflict, but added, “I will make no apologies that we are investing to make America strong.”

Biden also reiterated his oft-stated view that China is the biggest long-term threat to American interests. “Make no mistake about it: As we made clear last week, if China’s threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country,” he said. “And we did.”

The president then touted the bipartisan infrastructure law, another part of the speech that invited bipartisan applause.

“To my Republican friends who voted against it but still ask to fund projects in their districts, don’t worry. I promised to be the president for all Americans,” Biden said. “We’ll fund your projects. And I’ll see you at the groundbreaking.”

He also announced new standards to require construction materials used in federal infrastructure projects to be made in the US, which prompted a standing ovation from both Democrats and Republicans, including McCarthy.

Biden also took on the war in Ukraine, calling Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade the country last February “a test for the ages.” He sought to emphasise why the US should be committed to the war effort “as long as it takes” at a time when Republicans are showing more wariness about the amount of aid the US is sending.

A year after unveiling a “unity agenda” of bipartisan priorities like supporting veterans, combating opioid abuse and addressing mental illness, Biden laid out additional policy areas where Republicans and Democrats might work together.

Seizing on an area where many Republicans have called for federal action, Biden urged tougher regulation of Silicon Valley, including antitrust enforcement, stronger privacy protections and measures to safeguard children online.

More broadly, the president’s approach to the State of the Union reflected his political reality three months after midterm elections in which his party outperformed expectations but still narrowly lost control of the House.

Republicans have moved swiftly to frustrate Biden’s agenda and signal an end to the kind of ambitious – and expensive – domestic policies Democrats have favoured. Many of the proposals Biden outlined in previous national addresses, from expanding access to child care to providing paid leave to all workers to raising the minimum wage, are long shots at best in a divided Congress.

On abortion, Biden has acknowledged that his hands are mostly tied for the next two years, at least when it comes to legislation. In the wake of last year’s Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, Biden has pledged to use his executive authority to expand access to abortion even as many Republican-led states have moved in the opposite direction. He vowed to veto any national ban on abortion, although it is highly unlikely that the Democratic-controlled Senate would pass such a ban.

Biden also acknowledged the toll of the Covid-19 pandemic that has killed more than 1.1 million Americans, while also celebrating the fact that the country has largely returned to normal.

Even as the coronavirus continues to kill an average of more than 500 Americans each day, Biden has told Congress that he will end the national emergencies to combat the outbreak on May 11. House Republicans recently passed legislation to end the emergency declarations immediately and have pledged to investigate Biden’s handling of the pandemic.

Several Supreme Court justices and members of the Biden administration attended the speech, but there was one Cabinet official who was not present: Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. By tradition, one member of the Cabinet stays away from the event to ensure continuity of government in case of an attack on the Capitol.

The president also addressed the spate of gun violence that has rocked several communities, with dozens of mass shootings already this year. Biden reiterated his call for a federal ban on assault weapons, although Republican lawmakers have said such a bill is a non-starter.

One of first lady Jill Biden’s guests at the event was 26-year-old Brandon Tsay, who disarmed a man who is accused of killing 11 people in Monterey Park, California, last month. Tsay was among several guests recognised by the president, who called on Congress to go beyond praise for the young man and take action to reduce gun violence.

Among other guests, the singer Bono was invited for his activism in fighting HIV/AIDS and extreme poverty, while Paul Pelosi, the 82-year-old husband of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California), was invited after surviving a violent, politically motivated attack by a hammer-wielding intruder last year.

Family members of people killed by law enforcement populated the chamber. Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus invited them to highlight the push for federal legislation to address police brutality.

Biden, who unsuccessfully used his first address to a joint session of Congress in 2021 to call for lawmakers to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, faces new pressure to take action on policing after the death of Tyre Nichols last month in Memphis. Nichols, a 29-year-old black man, died after Memphis police stopped him for an alleged traffic violation and then beat, kicked and pepper-sprayed him in a brutal episode caught on video.

Row Vaughn and Rodney Wells, Nichols’s mother and stepfather, were invited to sit in the first lady’s box and have called on lawmakers to renew the push for policing reform.

Republicans tapped Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders to deliver the response to Biden’s speech. Sanders, 40, who served as press secretary for President Donald Trump, became the nation’s youngest governor when she was sworn in last month – something she highlighted in her speech.

“He is simply unfit to serve as commander in chief,” she said, adding that Republicans were “under attack in a left-wing culture war that we didn’t start and never wanted to fight.”

Washington Post


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