U.S. President Joe Biden called on Republicans in his state of the union address Tuesday night to call on Republicans to work with him to “finish the job” of rebuilding the economy and uniting the nation as he seeks to overcome pessimism in the country and navigate political divisions in Washington.
The backdrop of the annual address was markedly different from the previous two years, with a Republican speaker sitting behind Biden and Republican lawmakers in the audience preparing to scrutinize both his administration and his policies.
But Biden sought to portray a nation dramatically different in positive ways from the one he took charge of two years ago: from a reeling economy to one prosperous with new jobs; from a crippled, pandemic-weary nation to one that has now opened up and a democracy that has survived its biggest test since the Civil War.
“The story of America is a story of progress and resilience. Of always moving forward. Of never giving up. A story that is unique among all nations,” Biden said. “We are the only country that has emerged from every crisis stronger than when we entered it. That is what we are doing again.
“We’re not finished yet by any stretch of the imagination.”
Biden aims to ‘unite the country’
Biden sought to reassure the nation that his stewardship of the country has delivered results both at home and abroad, as he also set out to prove his fitness for a likely re-election bid.
But the challenges for Biden are many: economic uncertainty, a wearying war in Ukraine and growing tensions with China. And signs of the past trauma at the U.S. Capitol, most notably the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection, were unavoidable, with a large fence encircling the complex as lawmakers and those in attendance faced tighter-than-usual security measures.
From the start, the partisan divisions were clear. Democrats — including Vice-President Kamala Harris — jumped to applause as Biden began his speech. New Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, though he greeted the president warmly when he entered the chamber, stayed in his seat.
Rather than rolling out flashy policy proposals, the president set out to offer a reassuring assessment of the nation’s condition, declaring that two years after the Capitol attack, America’s democracy was “unbowed and unbroken.”
“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,” Biden said. “And that’s always been my vision for the country: to restore the soul of the nation, to rebuild the backbone of America — the middle class — to unite the country.
“We’ve been sent here to finish the job!”
Biden was speaking at a time when just a quarter of U.S. adults say things in the country are headed in the right direction, according to a new poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. About three-quarters say the country is on the wrong track. And a majority of Democrats don’t want Biden to seek another term.
He sought to confront those sentiments head on.
“You wonder whether a path even exists anymore for you and your children to get ahead without moving away, I get it,” Biden said. “That’s why we’re building an economy where no one is left behind. Jobs are coming back, pride is coming back because of the choices we made in the last two years.”
Acknowledging tensions between parties
Biden was shifting his sights after spending his first two years pushing through major bills such as the bipartisan infrastructure package, legislation to promote high-tech manufacturing and climate measures. With Republicans now in control of the House, he is turning his focus to implementing those massive laws and making sure voters credit him for the improvements.
Biden, not known for his oratory, appeared relaxed and confident as he delivered his address. He casually ad-libbed remarks, fed off the responses from Democratic lawmakers who frequently stood up with thunderous ovations and playfully engaged with his Republican critics.
Addressing Republicans who voted against the big bipartisan infrastructure law, Biden said he’d still ensure their pet projects received federal support.
“I promised to be the president for all Americans,” he said. “We’ll fund these projects. And I’ll see you at the ground-breaking.”
The switch is largely by necessity. The newly empowered Republican Party is itching to undo many of Biden’s achievements and vowing to pursue a multitude of investigations — including looking into the recent discoveries of classified documents from his time as vice president at his home and former office.
Though he pledged bipartisanship where possible, Biden also underscored the sharp tensions that exist between him and House Republicans: He discussed Republican efforts to repeal the Democrats’ 2022 climate change and health-care laws and their reluctance to increase the federal debt limit, the nation’s legal borrowing authority that must be raised later this year or risk default.
Stressing that the “full faith and credit of the United States of America will never, ever be questioned,” Biden accused congressional Republicans of threatening to hold the U.S. economy hostage to their policy demands.
“Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset every five years. That means if Congress doesn’t vote to keep them, those programs will go away,” Biden said. “Other Republicans say if we don’t cut Social Security and Medicare, they’ll let America default on its debt for the first time in our history.
“I won’t let that happen.”
Tyre Nichols’s family among guests
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who gained a national profile as Trump’s press secretary, was to deliver the Republican response to Biden’s speech.
With COVID-19 restrictions now lifted, the White House and legislators from both parties invited guests to the address designed to drive home political messages with their presence in the House chamber.
The parents of Tyre Nichols, who was severely beaten by police officers in Memphis and later died, are among those expected to be seated with first lady Jill Biden. Other Biden guests include Irish rock star and humanitarian Bono and the 26-year-old who disarmed a gunman in last month’s deadly shooting in Monterey Park, Calif.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus invited family members of those involved in police incidents, as they sought to press for action on police reform in the wake of Nichols’s January death.