In Tuesday’s solidly delivered State of the Union speech, President Biden implicitly addressed concerns that his administration is at best semi-successful, and it’s headed by an old man who’s a spent political force. Biden engaged in the customary brag-fest of his accomplishments, but treated them almost entirely as works in progress. Thus, the speech felt like a pitch not just for rest of his term but for the second term bid he will likely soon announce. Again and again he called on Congress and the viewing public to “Finish the job!” on tasks ranging from infrastructure to capping insulin costs at $35. And the president repeatedly urged citizens who are sour on the direction of the country to recognize the progress he’s ushered in, and share his optimism.
New House Speaker Kevin McCarthy maintained a disciplined frown for most of the address, applauding and even standing when the subject-matter required it. But Biden was lustily heckled by Republicans for the second year in a row, and this time not just by a couple of extremists. But Biden turned their rowdiness to his advantage. The loudest complaints were provoked by his (totally justified) taunts about Republican malice toward Social Security and Medicare — evidenced by Senator Rick Scott’s plan to “sunset” these and every other federal program. The Republicans roared that that aren’t actually after these programs, allowing Biden to sarcastically take credit for GOP “conversions” to the cause of protecting these programs and the seniors who rely on them. McCarthy looked pained at how his charges walked into a predictable trap that Biden sprang expertly and even joyfully in off-script interactions with his detractors.
As the speech wore on, Biden began to offer more and more red meat to Democrats on subjects like labor rights, public-school teacher salaries, climate change, “fair share” tax payments by the wealthy and corporations, a ban on assault weapons, and police-reform measures. Republicans’ anger grew steadily. But from the president’s point of view, the speech was an ideal mix of high-minded bipartisanship and effective partisan eye-gouging.
The other striking feature of the speech was Biden’s systematic adoption of the economic nationalist themes that his 2020 (and possible 2024) opponent Donald Trump deployed so effectively, dating back to 2016. He appealed to “forgotten Americans” in the heartland discouraged by the loss of manufacturing jobs and experiencing a “hollowing out” of the middle class, victimized by pharmaceutical companies and other corporations preying on them with big fees. “I get it,” Biden said often in citing the struggles of the unhappy working-class voters who have been defecting from his party in recent years. He just seemed to wish they would understand how much better things are becoming, and will continue to become once he “finished the job.”
In what was probably the most fluid speech of his presidency, Biden radiated command of the moment without sacrificing his famous folksiness. His effectiveness was actually underscored by the harsh “official response” from former Trump press secretary and now governor of Arkansas Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who began by calling Biden’s speech a pack of lies, delivered by a weak captive of leftists and global thugs. She claimed her party was offering “not right versus left, but normal versus crazy.” This boast contrasted sharply with the display of her colleagues in the House. Is a party that includes Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert in any significant effect “normal”? In the fight to look sane and sensible, the score on Tuesday night was Biden 1, GOP zip.
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