WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden challenged the new House Republican majority Tuesday night to work together with him to “finish the job” of repairing America’s unsettled economy and fragile democracy even as the emboldened opposition geared up to try to force him to change course.
In his first State of the Union address in this new era of divided government, Biden prepared to call on lawmakers to embrace his proposals to raise taxes on the wealthy and extend more social aid to the needy, citing the example of bipartisan legislation passed in his first two years in office when Democrats were in charge on Capitol Hill.
“To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can’t work together and find consensus on important things in this new Congress as well,” Biden said, boasting that he had signed more than 300 bipartisan laws. “The people sent us a clear message. Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict, gets us nowhere.
“That’s always been my vision for the country and I know it’s many of yours,” he added, “to restore the soul of the nation, to rebuild the backbone of America, America’s middle class, and unite the country. We’ve been sent here to finish the job, in my view.”
The appeal for bipartisan unity was a message aimed as much at the American public watching on television as those attending the speech in person, an effort to position the president as a responsible leader beset by a quarrelsome opposition. No one expects the Republicans who captured the House in November’s midterm elections to embrace Biden’s legislative program, nor for that matter is the president likely to agree anytime soon to the other side’s demands for deep spending cuts in exchange for an increase in the debt ceiling.
But the speech and the GOP response set for later in the evening will frame the terms of debate heading into the coming year, even as Biden prepares to announce a campaign for reelection this spring. The president and the House are heading for a collision that could jeopardize the nation’s credit rating and incomplete economic recovery with both sides already seeking to win the battle of public opinion.
Republicans brushed off Biden’s call for cooperation Tuesday long before he was to arrive at the Capitol, which was once again surrounded by security fences two years after a mob of former President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the building on Jan. 6, 2021, seeking to halt the counting of electoral votes sealing Biden’s election. They portrayed Biden as a failed leader captured by the liberal wing of his party.
“President Biden campaigned on being the adult in the room,” Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican minority leader, said on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon. “But he’s not even calling the shots in his own party. Over and over, on issue after issue, this president has handed the car keys to the radical left and turned himself into a passenger.”
The shifting power dynamics were on display Tuesday night. Sitting behind the president for the first time at a joint session was the newly selected Republican House speaker, Kevin McCarthy of California, who won his post only after 15 ballots and promises to his right wing to confront Biden aggressively at every turn.
While waiting for the president to enter, McCarthy stood stiffly, barely interacting at first with Vice President Kamala Harris, who was standing next to him and appeared to try to engage him in small talk.
Once on the rostrum, Biden made a point of congratulating McCarthy and shaking hands with him. “Mr. Speaker, I don’t want to ruin your reputation,” he said jokingly, “but I look forward to working with you.”
The hovering presence of the president’s defeated predecessor manifested itself as well, with the party’s official response assigned to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas, who served as Trump’s White House press secretary. Trump has already announced his campaign to run for president again in next year’s election, setting up the prospect of a rematch with Biden.
In excerpts from her speech released in advance, Sanders faulted the president for “high gas prices, empty grocery stores” and racial animus. “And while you reap the consequences of their failures, the Biden administration seems more interested in woke fantasies than the hard reality Americans face every day,” she planned to say. “Most Americans simply want to live their lives in freedom and peace, but we are under attack in a left-wing culture war we didn’t start and never wanted to fight.”
In taking the rostrum Tuesday night, however, Biden’s challenge was not only to navigate the new partisan realities of Washington but to persuade the broader nation that it is on the right path after the devastation wreaked by the COVID-19 pandemic and the Jan. 6 attack. He sought to offer an optimistic vision in sour times, celebrating economic gains at a moment when polls show that many Americans still do not feel them.
The president celebrated recent gains in the economy, including falling inflation and strong job growth, while taking credit for legislation meant to curb prescription drug prices for seniors, expand health benefits for veterans, invest in climate change programs and rebuild roads and bridges.
“Two years ago, COVID had shut down our businesses, closed our schools, and robbed us of so much,” Biden said. “Today, COVID no longer controls our lives. And two years ago, our democracy faced its greatest threat since the Civil War. Today, though bruised, our democracy remains unbowed and unbroken.”
At the same time, he sought to reach Americans still anxious over their own situations and the country’s future, “to meet the American people where they are,” as Brian Deese, his national economic adviser put it. In the speech, Biden hoped to directly address those who believe they have been left behind.
“You wonder whether a path even exists anymore for you and your children to get ahead without moving away. I get it,” Biden planned to say, according to a prepared text released before the speech. “That’s why we’re building an economy where no one is left behind. Jobs are coming back, pride is coming back because of the choices we made in the last two years. This is a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America and make a real difference in your lives.”
The speech came at a time when Biden has scored major policy successes and forged a broad coalition against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but polls show that most Americans are not satisfied with his leadership and even most Democrats would prefer that someone else run for president in 2024. Biden has among the lowest average second-year approval ratings of any modern president; only Trump’s second-year average was worse.
Clouding Biden’s message was a new special counsel investigation into the mishandling of classified documents and the furor over a Chinese spy balloon that crossed American airspace. Republicans have spent the past few days hammering Biden for perceived weakness, arguing that he should have ordered the military to shoot the balloon down right away rather than waiting until it reached the Atlantic Ocean to avoid possible casualties on the ground.
Biden skirted around the balloon episode, making no explicit reference to it in his prepared text but alluding to his decision to shoot it down as an example of his intention to stand tough against Beijing when necessary. “Make no mistake, as we made clear last week, if China’s threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country,” he said in the prepared remarks. “And we did.”
As presidents have done for four decades, Biden invited carefully chosen guests to join first lady Jill Biden in the House gallery to make political points. Among them were Oksana Markarova, the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States; Bono, the singer who has championed AIDS treatment; and Paul Pelosi, the husband of former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was attacked in their San Francisco home by a man hunting his wife.
Also sitting near the first lady were cancer survivors, business owners, students, a young immigrant seeking legal status, the father of a fentanyl overdose victim, a couple who pushed to legalize same-sex marriage, a Holocaust survivor, an ironworker, a Navy spouse, the man who disarmed a shooter in Monterey Park, California, and a woman who encountered trouble in pregnancy but could not be helped because of Texas’ abortion law.
Accompanying them were the parents of Tyre Nichols, the Black man who was beaten to death by five police officers in Memphis, touching off the latest national debate about policing and race.
Absent from the chamber, though, was Marty Walsh, the labor secretary who was chosen to stay away as a designated survivor in case of a catastrophe at the Capitol and is reported to be stepping down soon.
In his speech, Biden intended to call on Congress to extend a new $35 price cap on insulin for Medicare beneficiaries to all Americans; to make premium savings on Affordable Care Act health plans permanent; to impose a minimum tax on billionaires; and to quadruple the tax on corporate stock buybacks.
While those were not expected to generate much applause from Republicans, Biden nonetheless planned to put forward the latest elements of what aides call his “unity agenda,” a menu of policy proposals that presumably could attract bipartisan support. Among them will be initiatives to tackle the opioid epidemic, enhance cancer research and treatment, expand access to mental health services and improve benefits for veterans.
He also hoped to cement bipartisan support for his efforts to send tens of billions of dollars in arms and other aid to Ukraine to help it defeat Russian forces, nearly a year after Moscow’s unprovoked invasion. McCarthy said last fall that if Republicans won there would be no more “blank checks” for Ukraine, and while most GOP lawmakers continue to support military aid, polls show rising skepticism among Republican voters.
As important as his program may be, the president also faced pressure to ensure a smooth performance in front of what was likely to be his largest television audience of the year. At age 80, Biden is already the oldest president in U.S. history, and if he seeks reelection would be asking voters to entrust the White House to him until he is 86. Polls show that even many Democrats are concerned about his age and eager to see a younger generation rise to leadership of the party.
In a preview of what a campaign may look like, Biden plans to take his message on the road after the speech, heading to Madison, Wisconsin, on Wednesday to sell voters on his economic record and to Tampa, Florida, on Thursday to accuse Republicans of endangering Social Security and Medicare.