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Five takeaways from President Biden’s 2023 State of the Union

President Biden says in State of Union address that US is ‘unbowed, unbroken’
President Joe Biden exhorted Republicans over and over to work with him to “finish the job” of rebuilding the economy and uniting the nation.

President Biden’s 2023 State of the Union address comes at a time when public perception of his ability, agenda, and future differ from reality.

In perception, polls for over a year have found Biden to be an unpopular leader. His latest approval rating is at 43 percent, according to the FiveThirtyEight average of recent polls. Some 62 percent of Americans feel that Biden’s accomplishments “aren’t very much” or “little to nothing,” according to an ABC News/Washington Post released this week. In reality, historians have noted that his presidency has already been consequential. No, he isn’t FDR, but FDR also didn’t have the slimmest-ever majorities in Congress in modern history.


In perception, Biden’s legislative agenda is all but dead. Republicans control the House, after all. And it’s a group of lawmakers that cannot even seem to know what they agree on, much less how they can block Democrats, who control not only the White House but the Senate, and who sit just a few votes shy of House control. In reality, Biden has been counted out before on legislative matters but after a lot of waiting, has eventually signed some of the biggest spending packages ever on the topics of health care, climate, child care, and infrastructure. And no one is talking about COVID the way they were when Biden took office, a function that was both his luck on timing and due to his administration’s efforts to get vaccines into the arms of people who wanted them.

In perception, the economy is on the verge of recession. In reality, during the Biden presidency the national unemployment rate is at a 50-year low, inflation is down, and household wealth record has broken records (though is down in recent months).

In perception, Biden isn’t a viable candidate for the presidency. Nationally, poll after poll find Democrats hoping he isn’t the nominee for president. But in reality, over the last six months, Biden has slowly built an argument among the Democratic elite that he deserves another term and that he might offer them the best chance of defeating a Republican. Less than a year from the first presidential primary, there isn’t remotely a serious Democratic primary challenger, a fact that wasn’t a given the last time he gave this speech.


Here are five takeaways from the 2023 State of the Union speech, if you missed it.

It was most interactive State of the Union in memory

In modern history, the State of the Union address is when the president has the floor and any response is given in the form of applause of support or body language of disapproval. That changed during the Obama presidency, when one member, Republican Joe Wilson, broke decorum and precedent and yelled “you lie!”

Fast forward to 2023, when there wasn’t just one member of Congress calling him a liar but several audibly making the same accusation at the same time.

Biden and his team appeared like they knew this would happen and it set up a unique moment in American politics. Biden noted that some, not all, Republicans argued that there should be cuts and a sunsetting of Medicare and Social Security. This is drawn from a proposal made last year by two Republican senators, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Rick Scott of Florida. Johnson later backed away from the phrase and Scott was roundly criticized by his colleagues.


But Biden’s mention of this idea created near havoc in the chamber with claims that this wasn’t the Republican position. Biden then had a back-and-forth with the protesters telling him to come to his office and he would show them. More shouts from the Republican side followed.

Biden effectively created a trap and ended the back and forth by suggesting there was suddenly consensus that “Social Security and Medicare is off the books. We have unanimity.”

This is not some theoretical ploy. It might have been live governing. As we barrel toward the nation hitting the debt ceiling, some Republicans have said they wanted some concessions on these same entitlement programs as a way to lower the national debt.

There were further shouts of protest on the topic of China and securing the southern border.

Despite the tension, Biden made bipartisanship a big theme

Biden opened his speech with a lot of bipartisan discussion and that continued throughout. He praised Democratic leaders, yes, but also Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader from Kentucky, and later delivered a heartfelt tribute to George W. Bush’s actions to curb AIDS in Africa.

With these calls for bipartisanship, Biden was urging a divided Congress to work together on a number of items.

Biden focused on preventable American deaths

With this focus on what can be done with a divided Congress, Biden leaned on stopping preventable death among Americans. This involved curbing an illegal flow of drugs to the nation’s streets, averting suicide among veterans, redoubling efforts to find a cure for cancer, and passing significant police reform.


Forceful claims delivered about China and Russia

A lengthy foreign policy section of the speech established that the Biden administration is almost entirely focused on Russia and China as threats to the global order. There was no discussion, for example, of Iran, or North Korea, or even rising tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, or increasing calls to cool the relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Biden was forceful in his stance with Ukraine, to which House Speaker Kevin McCarthy notably clapped in support, but did not stand, as many Democrats did. He didn’t even clap when Biden claimed that the United States was in its “strongest position in decades to compete with China or anyone else in the world.”

Mitt Romney and George Santos exchanged words

One of the most interesting moments of the evening happened before Biden even entered the chamber. Fabulist New York Representative George Santos placed himself along the aisle, as many do with a hope of television time and to get a handshake with the president. Biden deftly avoided Santos, but when the Senate walked in on the same aisle, Romney had a brief, but tense conversation where he reportedly told him, ”You don’t belong here.” Santos quipped back but it was unclear what he said.

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James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.