(WASHINGTON) — It’s been a presidency defined by contradictions: soaring inflation alongside record-low unemployment, promises of international cooperation interrupted by turmoil and threats, stagnant politics punctuated by bipartisan breakthroughs — all with vows of common purpose offset by sharp reminders of divisions.
Tuesday night brought touches of defiance as well as conciliation from President Joe Biden — and a call for unity amid signs pointing toward anything but, up to and including among Republicans who grew rowdy at times in response.
It shaped an unusual State of the Union address that comes at an uncertain moment for the president and for the nation.
Just past the midpoint of his first term, and just weeks after his 80th birthday, Biden made a broad and energetic case for doing more of what he’s done to date, in much the way that he’s done it. He asked for support to “finish the job” despite deep skepticism over the efficacy of his actions so far — and no absolute certainty about whether he will seek to continue it into a second term.
“We are writing the next chapter in the great American story — a story of progress and resilience,” the president said. “We’re just getting started.”
The president cited encouraging economic statistics while hinting at the economic woes facing so many Americans, declaring flatly at one point, “I get it, I get it.” Yet, his main prescriptions were for doing more of the same, despite the bleaker odds posed by the fact that Republicans now control the House.
“So many things that we did are only now coming to fruition,” Biden said.
Biden referenced highlights and lowlights of the tumultuous months behind him: the COVID pandemic, the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, spiking gas and grocery prices, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Chinese spy balloon that floated into US airspace last week, Black men brutally killed by police officers, crises of fentanyl crossing the border and of veterans’ health.
Still, the turmoil in the past may only be a taste of what’s ahead. For the first time as president, Biden was appearing in a House chamber controlled by Republicans, with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy looming over the president’s shoulder both physically and metaphorically.
Biden and McCarthy are set to engage in negotiations — though the president won’t label them as such just yet — over the debt ceiling and federal spending, with potentially catastrophic economic fallout. The president singled McCarthy out for congratulations — an olive branch, perhaps, that could go toward building a working relationship.
“Mr. Speaker, I don’t want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to working with you,” Biden said.
There were no references to the coming presidential campaign. But the speech laid out the contours of what a reelection campaign might look like, if one does materialize in the coming weeks, suggesting that he would run like he ran before – and, to a lesser extent, as he governed.
“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 in this Congress as well,” Biden said.
But there are, of course, plenty of reasons why common ground will be harder to find. When the president baited Republicans by referencing scattered GOP plans to cut Medicare and Social Security, the chamber grew unruly. Biden ad-libbed to suggest Republican boos meant everyone could actually agree.
“Let’s all agree — and we apparently are — let’s stand up for seniors,” he said. “Apparently, it’s not going to be a problem.”
The president also made clear that he needs the federal government to deliver on promises both explicit and implicit. Two years of legislating have set up at least two years of implementing, in Biden’s view, as he seeks to build on legislative wins on infrastructure, health care, energy and the environment that once seemed unachievable.
The president did not mention his predecessor by name, with his main reference to him coming in a reminder of how the deficit ballooned under his tenure — drawing more boos from the Republicans in the chamber. But of course, former President Donald Trump – who, unlike Biden, has already declared his 2024 candidacy – continues to dominate political discussions.
Republicans kept Trump close to the conversation Tuesday night with their decision to tap newly elected Arkansas Gov. Sarah Sanders – best known nationally as a Trump White House press secretary – to give the official GOP response. She ripped into Biden for what she called a “radical left” agenda she called “not normal,” “crazy” and “wrong.”
“While you reap the consequences of their failures, the Biden administration seems more interested in woke fantasies than the hard reality Americans face every day,” said Sanders, who, at 40, is the nation’s youngest governor and half Biden’s age. “We are under attack in a left-wing culture war we didn’t start and never wanted to fight.”
If there is a good story for Biden to tell about his first two years, there’s ample evidence that the public has yet to hear it. The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll put Biden’s approval rating at just 42% – well within a zone where he’s been treading underwater for nearly a year and half.
If there’s potential salvation inside the numbers for Biden, though, it’s when Biden is contrasted with Republicans. Biden is trusted by just 31% to make the “right decisions for the country’s future,” yet McCarthy is trusted by only 19%.
The same poll found broad support for Biden’s approach for handling the debt ceiling, and skepticism over the legitimacy of the GOP’s inquiry into the “weaponization” of the federal government.
There’s nothing new about Biden trying out optimism on a national stage. Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress came in a sparse House chamber that was at the time controlled entirely if narrowly by Democrats, with attendance limited because of the pandemic and with memories of the Jan. 6 insurrection still fresh.
“America is on the move again,” Biden said in April 2021. “After 100 days of rescue and renewal, America is ready for takeoff, in my view.”
That view did not and could not anticipate the entirety of the challenges ahead. One big question now for Biden is what lift he can still provide, with pressures that will only grow more urgent in the run-up to 2024.
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