WASHINGTON — President Biden was chatting with members of Congress after his State of the Union address when a booming voice rose above the chamber’s cacophony: “Mr. President, that was awesome!”
The voice belonged to Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., a progressive Democrat and not an especially close Biden ally. But the sentiment was reflective of how many in the party felt about Biden’s message and delivery on Tuesday night.
Feisty, combative and energetic, Biden seemed to relish in drawing a contrast with a Republican Party he treated at times with gentle but needling condescension. “Lots of luck in your senior year,” he told GOP members seeking to repeal last year’s Inflation Reduction Act.
Partisan differences aside, Biden’s paeans to American exceptionalism could have been borrowed from Ronald Reagan. Heading into the evening, Biden was facing a concerted opposition from his own party on the question of whether he should seek a second term, just as Reagan did in 1984.
While he has not yet announced that he will seek reelection, Tuesday night will almost certainly serve to bolster Biden’s conviction that the 2024 election is too important to hand off to someone else.
Here are five takeaways from the president’s State of the Union address.
1. He brought the fight to Republicans
Bipartisanship has always been a key aspect of Biden’s approach to politics. But as vice president to Barack Obama, he watched GOP leadership stymie his boss, who’d had only two years of experience on Capitol Hill before moving to the White House. As his own time came to occupy the Oval Office, Biden vowed to work with Republicans, but also to harbor no illusions about what the party had become during the Trump years.
That dichotomy was on display on Tuesday night. “When I came to office, most everyone assumed bipartisanship was impossible. But I never believed it,” he said, in one of nearly a dozen references to bipartisanship. But he also recognized bipartisanship’s limits, as when he charged Republicans with wanting to subject popular Social Security and Medicare programs to onerous congressional reauthorizations. The charge (based on a divisive plan proposed by Sen. Rick Scott of Florida and rejected by much of the GOP) drew boos and jeers from the chamber, but Biden seemed unfazed.
If anything, the reaction seemed to delight him.
“Anybody who doubts it, contact my office,” he taunted.
2. The economic recovery is real
Nothing is more tenuous or fragile than a national economy struggling to recover from a global crisis. But on Tuesday, Biden argued that his stewardship is responsible for rescuing the American economy from the darkest days of the coronavirus pandemic, when unemployment soared, uncertainty prevailed and some worried that a full-blown depression could be on the way.
Those predictions turned out to be wrong, as Biden happily noted. “We are the only country that has emerged from every crisis stronger than when we entered it,” he said at the beginning of his State of the Union address. “That is what we are doing again.”
Pointing to the gain of 12 million jobs and record-low 3.4% unemployment, Biden argued that the United States had prevailed at a time when many other countries continued to flounder.
Last spring, Biden argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that his policies — and those of the Federal Reserve, which acts independently of the White House but is not oblivious to the political and cultural realities at work outside its hallowed halls — would bring down inflation. Eight months later, he appears to have been proven correct, even if wages are, troublingly, failing to keep up with price increases.
At the very least, those increases are subsiding, when judged by the year-over-year figures used to measure inflation each month. After a peak of 9.1% in June 2022, as compared to June 2021, inflation fell to 6.5% last December. That’s still far higher than the Fed’s 2% target, but much lower than the United Kingdom’s 10.5% inflation rate, or even Germany’s 8.6%.
The comparisons are inexact, but they are powerful, and Biden knows it. “Inflation has been a global problem because of the pandemic that disrupted supply chains and Putin’s war that disrupted energy and food supplies,” he said on Tuesday night, casting inflation — as he usually does — as a crisis created by China and Russia. “But we’re better positioned than any country on Earth.”
3. Putting American workers first
Donald Trump’s victories in the Midwest in the 2016 election reminded Democrats that they had forgotten to tend to the working-class base that Reagan first courted in the 1980s, a base that had become increasingly alienated with the rise of globalization and the digital economy.
Biden claimed on Tuesday that 800,000 manufacturing jobs had been created during his time in office (that figure has been deemed inaccurate by fact checkers, but Biden has persisted in citing it), and that his investment in the microchip industry would create even more, as would green energy initiatives stemming from the Inflation Reduction Act.
“We’re making sure the supply chain for America begins in America,” he said.
Acknowledging that both his infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act were anathema to the vast majority of Republicans, he tweaked the GOP by taking the rhetorical high ground. “And to my Republican friends who voted against it but still ask to fund projects in their districts, don’t worry,” Biden said with evident delight. “I promised to be the president for all Americans. We’ll fund your projects. And I’ll see you at the ground-breaking.”
More substantively, the president announced that going forward infrastructure projects would be required to use American materials, as opposed to those shipped from China, Mexico or elsewhere: "On my watch, American roads, bridges, and American highways will be made with American products," Biden said.
“Biden is banking on American optimism,” the historian and public intellectual Heather Cox Richardson noted on Twitter. After three years of pandemic anxiety, political division and economic uncertainty, that optimism can seem more novelty than national legacy stretching back to the republic’s earliest days.
4. Popping the China balloon
Biden delivered his State of the Union address as questions lingered about the surveillance balloon China had sent to supposedly spy on sensitive U.S. military installations. The balloon was shot down by the U.S. military, but Republicans have continued to assail Biden over what they have described as a weak foreign policy obeisant to authoritarian regimes.
While he did not address those criticisms directly — and while his strategy to contain China, Russia and other hostile regimes merits serious scrutiny — Biden used combative rhetoric to silence the more vociferous of his critics.
In a particularly impassioned moment, he angrily struck out at Chinese leader Xi Jinping, with whom he has a long and complicated relationship, one that has been strained by tensions over the coronavirus pandemic, trade tariffs, Beijing’s ties to Moscow and the contested status of Taiwan.
“Autocracies have grown weaker, not stronger,” Biden said, his voice rising to a shout, his right index finger jabbing into the air. “Name me a world leader who’d change places with Xi Jinping. Name me one! Name me one!”
Ukraine received little mention, perhaps because there is little political benefit to discoursing at length on what is developing into a long and costly conflict. But as he looked at Ukrainian ambassador to the United States Oksana Markarova — one of his guests, as she had been the year before — Biden offered the reassurance Ukrainians need to hear as Russian rockets fall on their cities and Russian tanks roll over their fields: “We will stand with you as long as it takes.”
5. The end of civility?
It has been more than a decade since President Barack Obama’s address to Congress was interrupted by Rep. Joe Wilson’s infamous “you lie” outburst. Since then, democratic norms have been eroding like a cliffside battered by ocean waves.
Tuesday night included plenty of theatrics. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene called Biden a “liar” for pointing out that some Republicans want to reform how Social Security and Medicare are apportioned.
As the president lamented the thousands of Americans who have died from fentanyl overdoses, someone from the GOP side of the chamber yelled, “It’s your fault!” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who had been nodding along to the president’s words, looked disapproving in the direction of his conference.
Biden seemed unfazed by the attacks, almost welcoming them as an apparent sign that his words were striking a nerve.