President Biden delivered his second State of the Union address Tuesday amid the customary pomp and circumstance — and to loud acclaim from Democrats.
But the speech also came as Biden struggles with mediocre approval ratings, the realities of a divided Congress and the looming start of the 2024 election campaign.
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave the official GOP response.
Here are the main takeaways from the night.
Pitched battle between Biden and GOP
Rep. Lisa McClain (R-Mich.) and other House Republicans spent time talking back to President Biden as he gave his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, February 7, 2023. (Greg Nash)
The high point of bipartisanship came in the first few sentences of Biden’s speech.
He congratulated Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on his new role, turning around to shake the hand of the smiling Californian.
“I don’t want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to working with you,” Biden joked.
To judge from the rest of the speech — and the Republican reaction to it — there won’t be much unity to come.
Despite pledges from McCarthy to uphold decorum, Republicans made their dismay vocally obvious at several points. It was a far more aggressive display of dissent than the simple silence the opposition party has traditionally deployed during past State of the Union addresses.
Biden offered some areas where there might be hope for bipartisan agreement, such as fighting the opioid epidemic and bolstering mental health care. But he also leaned hard into a Democratic wish list.
He proposed an assault weapons ban, the codification of abortion rights, a new tax on billionaires and labor union protections — none of which has any realistic chance of passage while the GOP holds the House majority.
There may have been promises of unity and propriety, but Tuesday night was all about underscoring battlelines.
Biden will likely draw them even more starkly if he announces a bid for second term, as he’s expected to do soon.
In many ways, Tuesday’s speech was his opening salvo.
A raucous chamber
Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene and other Republicans listen as President Biden delivers his State of the Union Address. (AP)
Fourteen years ago, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) received widespread criticism after he shouted “You lie!” at then-President Obama during an address to a joint session of Congress.
American politics is in a different era now, as Tuesday made clear.
Biden was heckled repeatedly by Republicans during his address. One of the louder examples came when Rep. Andy Ogles (R-Tenn.) accused him of being to blame for the estimated 70,000-plus American deaths per year from fentanyl.
“It’s your fault,” Ogles shouted. He confirmed his shouted remark at Biden to The Hill after the address.
At another point, Biden stared out into the crowd of lawmakers, clearly dismayed, after something — inaudible to television viewers — was shouted as he spoke about immigration.
The new GOP House majority takes pride in its staunch opposition to Biden, and the party has been amplifying firebrand voices for some time.
Perhaps the most prominent such voice in the House, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), was among Biden’s hecklers on Tuesday.
High emotion over Tyre Nichols
RowVaughn Wells, center, mother of Tyre Nichols, who died after being beaten by Memphis police officers, and her husband Rodney Wells, second left, are recognized by President Joe Biden as he delivers his State of the Union speech to a joint session of Congress. (AP)
A very different moment came in the midst of the partisan back-and-forth.
Biden’s comments about the death of Tyre Nichols, made as Nichols’s mother and stepfather looked on from the gallery, resonated in an appropriately somber chamber.
Biden recalled how he had never had to have “the talk” with his children— commonplace among Black Americans, in particular — about how to minimize the dangers if they were to be stopped by police.
The president recounted some of the advice often given in such conversations, such as keeping hands on the steering wheel and turning on the vehicle’s interior lighting immediately.
Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, died Jan. 10 after being severely beaten by Memphis police officers three days previously. Five officers, all of whom are also Black, have been charged with second-degree murder and fired from the city’s police department.
Biden’s remarks on Nichols had a political point — he called on Congress to “finish the job” on police reform.
But the moment was extraordinary for its visceral emotional force rather than its politics.
Biden snares GOP in a trap on Medicare and Social Security
President Biden had perhaps his most tense moment of the night with Republicans when he spoke about Social Security and Medicare during his State of the Union Address. (Greg Nash)
Biden’s boosters insist that the president’s political skills are repeatedly underestimated.
Another example came Tuesday when Biden appeared to set a trap for the GOP — and have them walk right into it.
The issue was the possibility of cutting Social Security and Medicare. Both are highly expensive but highly popular.
Biden laid out his case that some Republicans wanted to “sunset” the programs — Congress-speak for allowing legislation to lapse.
The president was clearly alluding to a plan from Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), released last year, which did indeed call for all federal legislation to either be reauthorized every five years or lapse.
Biden’s mention of the Scott plan caused a near uproar from Republicans — perhaps because Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had disavowed Scott’s proposal virtually as soon as it was issued.
But Biden then used the GOP’s reaction to emphasize his point that no cuts at all should be made to the programs. He said he would protect the programs but added wryly, “Apparently it’s not going to be a problem.”
There are, in fact, Republicans who argue that the programs should be reformed or amended.
But Biden’s wily move boxed them in, at least for now, in dramatic fashion.
Giving GOP response, Sarah Huckabee Sanders hits hot-button issues
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders prepares to give the Republican response to President Biden’s State of the Union Address. (AP)
Sanders, newly inaugurated as Arkansas’s governor but better known to many Americans as former President Trump’s White House press secretary, delivered a fiery response for the GOP.
Sanders let rip on hot-button cultural issues and other sensitive topics — including Biden’s age. She noted pointedly that she is the youngest governor in the nation, whereas Biden, at 80, is “the oldest president in American history.”
Huckabee went on to allege that the president is, for several reasons, “unfit to serve as commander in chief.”
She also accused the administration of being in thrall to “woke fantasies” and having been “completely hijacked by the radical left.”
The choice between Republicans and Democrats “is between normal or crazy,” she said.
The GOP base is sure to love Sanders’s no-holds-barred approach. Whether it will persuade any moderate voters is a more open question.
One line from Sanders was interesting in a different way.
“It’s time for a new generation of Republican leadership,” she said.
Presumably her 76-year-old former boss, seeking to become the GOP presidential nominee for the third time, would disagree.
Emily Brooks contributed to this story.