President Biden vowed Tuesday night to work across the aisle with the newly divided Congress, playfully engaging with jeering Republicans at his second State of the Union address and taking credit for America’s red-hot labor market.
The president urged Congress to raise taxes on the rich and said he is building an economy “where no one is left behind.” He told Republicans, who now control the House of Representatives, that “there is no reason” they should not work with Democrats.
Early in the speech, Biden joked to Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the California Republican seated behind him, “I don’t want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to working with you.”
Later, after Biden accurately said some members of the GOP have sought to end Social Security, Republicans booed and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a far-right Georgia Republican, called him a “liar.”
Biden smiled. When he added, “As we all apparently agree, Security and Medicare is off the books,” both sides of the aisle stood and applauded.
“All right!” Biden said. “We’ve got unanimity!”
In the speech, Biden described U.S. democracy as “unbowed and unbroken” by the tumultuous tenure and ignominious exit of his predecessor, Donald Trump. And he pushed Americans to reflect on how far their country has come under his leadership.
“Two years ago, our economy was reeling. As I stand here tonight, we have created — with the help of many people in this room — a record 12 million new jobs,” Biden said. “Two years ago, COVID had shut down our businesses, closed our schools and robbed us of so much. Today, COVID no longer controls our lives.”
The president enjoys some strong political tailwinds. Inflation has moderated. Unemployment has hit a half-century low. Democrats kept the Senate and nearly won the House in the November midterm elections.
But the 80-year-old president’s approval rating remains mired in the low 40s, and concerns about his age and acuity have dominated dialogue around his expected run for reelection in 2024.
A swirl of difficulties, including the discovery that he may have mishandled classified documents, have eaten into any boost in popularity Biden may have secured after Democrats outperformed midterm expectations. The challenges before him are immense.
Russia’s bloody war still rages in Ukraine. An emboldened China just flew a suspected spy balloon across the continental U.S., frustrating attempts to repair diplomatic links between Washington and Beijing. A political crisis in Venezuela is sending waves of migrants into American cities including New York.
In the U.S., a partisan showdown over lifting the nation’s debt cap is brewing, and a small army of Republicans are plotting campaigns to take down Biden. Trump has already jumped into the 2024 race.
Democratic leaders in Congress have said they believe they can pick off moderate Republicans in the narrowly divided House to reach bipartisan aims.
Biden, who has vacillated between partisan warrior and conciliator-in-chief, insisted in his speech that his vision has always been to “restore the soul of the nation” and to “unite the country.”
“The people sent us a clear message,” he said. “Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict, gets us nowhere.”
But he also drew Republican frowns with his calls for a minimum tax on billionaires, a ban on assault rifles and the restoration of national abortion protections.
Before the speech, McCarthy struck notes of bipartisanship, saying he wants to “work with” Biden. The pair shared warm handshakes before and after the address.
McCarthy fulfilled a promise not to rip up Biden’s speech — as his Democratic predecessor, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, once did to Trump’s — and shushed Republican colleagues when they heckled Biden.
But it was not clear how long any bipartisan embrace on the Hill would last. After Biden’s speech, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas was expected to deliver a fiery GOP rebuttal.
“The Biden administration seems more interested in woke fantasies than the hard reality Americans face every day,” Sanders’ prepared remarks said. “We are under attack in a left-wing culture war.”
With Michael McAuliff
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