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By Courtney Subramanian
Washington (TNS) — A feisty and occasionally combative President Biden sparred with Republicans over his legislative record, the federal deficit and border security in a State of the Union address that began as an appeal for bipartisanship. online news
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., at one point appeared to try to quiet hecklers who shouted as the president called on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform and help him address border security.
Biden, who spoke for roughly an hour, sought to reassure Americans that he has repaired the economic damage wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. He reminded his critics that he has repeatedly defied predictions that he would be unable to work across the aisle.
“I don’t want to ruin your reputation,” Biden quipped to McCarthy early in his speech, “but I look forward to working with you.”
The president has yet to announce whether he’s officially running for reelection, but aides say he’ll make a decision in the coming weeks. His prime-time speech before a divided Congress and millions of Americans was an opportunity to celebrate the legislation he has signed, explain his efforts to curb inflation and lay out his vision for the next two years
The address also served as a soft launch for Biden’s all but certain 2024 campaign and a chance to hone his pitch that he’s a steady hand who’s built his career on bipartisanship.
“We’re often told that Democrats and Republicans can’t work together. But over these past two years, we proved the cynics and the naysayers wrong,” he said in the House chamber. “To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can’t work together in this new Congress.”
The speech also offered Biden, who turned 80 in November, an occasion to show voters and members of his own party that he is able to endure another four years.
But the public is pessimistic about the country’s future and the prospect of a second Biden term. About three-quarters of U.S. adults say the country is not headed in the right direction, compared with a quarter who say things are on the right track, an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll released Monday found. Just 37% of Democrats said they want Biden to seek a second term, a notable drop from the 52% who said the same in the run-up to the midterm elections in November.
A State of the Union address “is an impossible speech to give for any president,” said William Howell, an American politics professor at the University of Chicago. “It’s a speech that has to politically attend to a lot of competing claims, and it comes at a time when there’s acute uncertainty about the state of the world and the state of the economy.”
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Despite the occasional jeers, members of both parties rose to their feet as Biden urged Congress to revisit long-stalled talks on police accountability in the wake of the fatal assault of Tyre Nichols at the hands of five Memphis police officers. Biden acknowledged RowVaughn and Rodney Wells, Nichols’ mother and stepfather, as he called for officers to be held accountable.
“Imagine what it’s like to lose a child at the hands of the law,” he said, but added that police officers needed more resources and training.
The president renewed his plea to reinstate an assault weapons ban in the aftermath of two mass shootings in California. He honored Brandon Tsay, who disarmed the Monterey Park gunman.
“He saved lives. It’s time we do the same as well,” Biden said of Tsay. “Ban assault weapons once and for all.”
The president also called for a cap on insulin costs for privately insured patients and urged lawmakers to close the coverage gap in GOP-led states that have refused to accept billions of dollars in federal money to expand Medicaid to more poor and middle-class people.
The majority of the president’s speech focused on amplifying his economic message as he tries to ensure Americans feel the impact of his policies. The president urged Congress to pass a minimum tax on billionaires and proposed guidance that would require most federal infrastructure projects to use construction materials made in the U.S.
“Reward work, not just wealth,” Biden said. “Because no billionaire should pay a lower tax rate than a school teacher or a firefighter.”
Biden pointed to January labor data, which showed employers added more than half a million jobs and the unemployment rate fell to the lowest level in more than half a century, as evidence that his economic plan is working.
But despite those job gains and indicators that inflation is abating, the president’s approval rating remains stubbornly at 42%, largely unchanged from when he last delivered his first State of the Union a year ago (41%).
Since he took office, Biden has urged members of his party to apply lessons learned from the Obama years by effectively communicating their achievements to voters — a strategy he said his former boss was hesitant to use after the passage of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
But the Biden White House has also struggled to convince voters that he’s delivered on his promise to make their lives easier. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Monday found 62% of Americans say Biden has not accomplished “very much” or “little or nothing” during his first two years in office, compared with 36% who say he accomplished “a great deal” or “a good amount.”
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One of the biggest threats to Biden’s agenda was seated behind him on the dais Tuesday night. McCarthy is locked in a standoff with Biden over the federal deficit and has refused to raise the debt limit unless the president commits to unspecified cuts on future spending. If the two leaders are unable to reach a deal, the U.S. would default on its debt, rattling financial markets and wreaking economic havoc.
Biden’s bipartisan tone shifted as he attacked “some” Republicans for wanting to “sunset” Medicare and Social Security every five years, referencing a proposal put forth last year by Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott but rejected by many other Republicans. Biden’s comments drew GOP jeers, with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, R-Ga., rising to call Biden a liar.
“That was part of the deal, guys. Look it up,” he said as he veered from scripted remarks. “If anyone tries to cut Social Security, I will stop them. And if anyone tries to cut Medicare, I will stop them. I will not allow them to be taken away. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever.”
Biden avoided repeating his midterm campaign message, which centered on attacking “MAGA Republicans” he deemed a threat to democracy. But he continued to condemn political violence, including the recent assault on Paul Pelosi, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband.
Biden appealed to Congress to work together on four bipartisan goals: fighting cancer, improving veteran’s healthcare, combating the opioid crisis and ensuring access to mental health care. He also called for Western allies and the American public to stand behind Ukraine as Russia’s invasion lurches into its second year.
“Putin’s invasion has been a test for the ages. A test for America. A test for the world,” he said.
He saved some of his sharpest rhetoric for China. On Saturday, on Biden’s orders, an F-22 fighter jet shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon that had swept across the continental U.S. China has maintained that the balloon was a research vessel being used for meteorological investigation and that it accidentally drifted into U.S. airspace. But the episode damaged the already fragile relationship between the two superpowers and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken postponed a trip to Beijing in protest.
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“Make no mistake: As we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did,” he said.
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a former Trump White House press secretary who delivered the Republican Party’s official rebuttal, criticized the Biden administration for being “more interested in woke fantasies than the hard reality Americans face every day,” but her response focused on culture war issues such as transgender rights and critical race theory, issues that were mostly absent from Biden’s speech. She also sought to highlight Biden’s age, pointing out she is the youngest governor in the country while Biden is the nation’s oldest president ever.
“The dividing line in America is no longer between right or left. The choice is between normal or crazy,” she said. “It’s time for a new generation of Republican leadership.”
House Republicans, who have vowed to be a roadblock during Biden’s remaining time in office, are already ramping up their investigations of the president, his administration and his family. The president is also facing a special counsel investigation into whether he mishandled classified documents.
But Biden showed no hints of concern over the impending investigations and instead emerged from the dais invigorated by his performance. The president, who spent 36 years in the Senate before he became vice president, descended on the crowd of lawmakers to shake hands and take selfies.
“Thoughts and prayers to the staffers trying to move Joe Biden out of one of his favorite places,” former White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki tweeted.
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