Biden uses feisty State of the Union to contrast with Trump, sell voters on a second term

President Joe Biden turned his State of the Union speech Thursday night into an animated argument for a second term as he laced into GOP front-runner Donald Trump for espousing “resentment, revenge and retribution” and jeopardizing freedom at home and abroad.

Associated Press

Mar 8, 2024, 4:09 AM

Updated 133 days ago


President Joe Biden turned his State of the Union speech Thursday night into an animated argument for a second term as he laced into GOP front-runner Donald Trump for espousing “resentment, revenge and retribution” and jeopardizing freedom at home and abroad.
Over and over, Biden delivered broadsides at “my predecessor” without ever mentioning Trump by name — 13 times in all — raising his voice repeatedly as he tried to quell voter concerns about his age and job performance while sharpening the contrast with his all-but-certain November rival.
It was a far feistier tone from Biden than his prior State of the Union addresses and it was designed to banish doubts about whether the 81-year-old is still up to the job. For 68 minutes in the House chamber, Biden goaded Republicans over their policies, invited call-and-response banter with fellow Democrats on economic issues, taxes and healthcare and seemed to revel in the fight.
“Freedom and democracy are under attack both at home and overseas at the very same time,” Biden said as he appealed for Congress to support Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself against Russia’s invasion. “History is watching.”
Biden quickly pivoted to the threats at home, referencing the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol by Trump supporters seeking to overturn the 2020 election, and calling for the threat to democracy to be countered.
“My predecessor — and some of you here — seek to bury the truth about Jan. 6 — I will not do that,” Biden said. “This is a moment to speak the truth and to bury the lies. Here’s a simple truth. You can’t love your country only when you win.”
“My lifetime has taught me to embrace freedom and democracy,” Biden said. “A future based on the core values that have defined America: honesty, decency, dignity, equality. To respect everyone. To give everyone a fair shot. To give hate no safe harbor. Now some other people my age see a different story: an American story of resentment, revenge, and retribution. That’s not me.”
The president showcased his accomplishments on infrastructure and manufacturing, and pushed Congress to approve more aid to Ukraine, tougher migration rules and lower drug prices. He also sought to remind voters of the situation he inherited when he entered office in 2021 amid a raging pandemic and a contracting economy.
The 81-year-old president was being closely watched not just for his message, but for whether he could deliver it with vigor and command.
White House aides said Biden was aiming to prove his doubters wrong by flashing his combative side and trying to needle Republicans over positions he believes are out of step with the country, particularly on access to abortion, but also tax policy and healthcare. It’s part of his campaign-year effort to use even official speeches to clarify the choice for voters at the ballot box this fall.
Taking a victory lap in selling his legislative accomplishments, such as one that bolsters manufacturing of computer chips nationwide, Biden veered from his prepared script to take a dig at Republicans who voted against such policies but are eager to take credit for them back home.
“If any of you don’t want that money in your districts,” Biden said, “just let me know.”
The president was speaking before a historically ineffective Congress. In the GOP-led House, Speaker Mike Johnson took power five months ago after the chaotic ouster of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Legislators are still struggling to approve funding bills for the current year and have been deadlocked for months on foreign assistance bills to help Ukraine stave off Russia’s invasion and support Israel’s fight against Hamas.
The State of the Union address is a marquee night on the White House calendar, offering presidents a direct line to a captive audience of lawmakers and dignitaries in the House chamber and tens of millions of viewers at home. But even so, the night has lost some of its luster as viewership has declined.
Biden aides inside the White House and on his campaign had hoped for some fresh viral moments — like when he tussled last year with heckling Republicans and chided them for past efforts to cut Medicare and Social Security.
Johnson, eager to avoid a similar episode this year, urged Republicans in a private meeting Wednesday to show “decorum” during the speech, according to a person familiar with his remarks to lawmakers.
He appeared to have limited success. A number of House Republicans began to stand up and leave the chamber as Biden discussed raising taxes on billionaires and corporations. Other, like Johnson, remained in their chairs and shook their heads.
Biden engaged in a loud call and response with lawmakers as he rhetorically questioned whether the tax code was fair and whether billionaires and corporations need “another $2 trillion in tax breaks,” as he charged Republicans want.
One of the most contentious moments of his speech came during his remarks on immigration, when Biden was running down the endorsements by conservative groups of the bipartisan border legislation that Republicans killed last month.
Some in the audience appeared to yell and interject, and Biden shot back, “I know you know how to read.”
As Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, decked out in pro-Trump paraphernalia, continued to shout at Biden, the president held up a white button that the Georgia Republican had handed him earlier bearing the name of Laken Riley, who authorities say was killed by a Venezuelan national who unlawfully crossed into the U.S. in September 2022.
“Laken Riley,” Biden said, calling her an “innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal.” He expressed condolences to her family, saying his heart goes out to them.
And congressional Republican leaders were showcasing one of their newest lawmakers through the State of the Union rebuttal in order to make a generational contrast with Biden. Alabama Sen. Katie Britt, the youngest Republican woman elected to the Senate, planned to paint a picture of a nation that “seems to be slipping away” and one where “our families are hurting.”
“Right now, our commander-in-chief is not in command. The free world deserves better than a dithering and diminished leader,” Britt was to say, according to excerpts released Thursday evening. “America deserves leaders who recognize that secure borders, stable prices, safe streets, and a strong defense are the cornerstones of a great nation.”
Biden painted an optimistic future for the country as the massive pieces of legislation he signed into law during his first two years in office are implemented. But he also was set to warn that the progress he sees at home and abroad is fragile — and particularly vulnerable if Trump returns to the White House.
Trump, for his part, said he planned to respond in real time to Biden’s remarks on his Truth Social platform.
This year, Biden faced heightened emotions — particularly among his base supporters — over his staunch backing for Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza. The White House had initially hoped a short-term cease-fire would be in place by the speech. It blames Hamas for not yet accepting a deal brokered by the U.S. and its allies.
A slew of Democrats and Republicans wore pins and stickers in honor of the Israeli hostages still being held captive in Gaza. Meanwhile, several House progressives wore Palestinian keffiyehs, the black and white checkered scarfs that have come to symbolize Palestinian solidarity. Biden’s motorcade took a circuitous route to the Capitol, as hundreds of pro-cease-fire demonstrators tried to disrupt its path from the White House.
Amid growing concerns about the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, Biden announced in his address that he has directed the U.S. military to establish a temporary port on the Gaza coast aimed at increasing the flow of aid into the beleaguered territory.
The president also issued an emphatic call for lawmakers to pass sorely needed defense assistance for Ukraine. Acute ammunition shortages have allowed Russia to retake the offensive in the 2-year-old war.
The GOP-controlled House has refused to act on a Senate-passed version of the aid legislation, insisting on new stiffer measures to limit migration at the U.S.-Mexico border, after Trump used his influence to help sink a bipartisan compromise that would have done just that.
Access to abortion and fertility treatments was also a key component of Biden’s speech, especially in light of a controversial ruling from Alabama’s Supreme Court that has upended access to in vitro fertilization treatment in the state.
One of first lady Jill Biden’s guests for the speech was Kate Cox, who sued Texas, and ultimately left her home state, to obtain an emergency abortion after a severe fetal anomaly was detected.
“If Americans send me a Congress that supports the right to choose I promise you: I will restore Roe v. Wade as the law of the land again,” Biden said. Several House Democratic women were wearing white -- a symbol of women’s suffrage -- to promote reproductive rights.
The White House also invited union leaders, a gun control advocate, and others that Jill Biden and her husband have met as they traveled the country promoting his agenda. The prime minister of Sweden, Ulf Kristersson, will attend to mark his country’s accession to NATO in the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Expelled and disgraced, former Rep. George Santos, who still retains floor privileges as an ex-member of Congress, also showed up for the speech.
Going into the State of the Union, Biden also has raised the problems of “shrinkflation” – companies putting fewer pretzels in the jar and less yogurt in sealed cups — and so-called “junk fees” on services. Neither is a prime driver of inflation, but the White House hopes to show consumers that Biden is fighting for them.
Biden also unveiled an expanded plan to raise corporate taxes and use the proceeds to trim budget deficits and cut taxes for the middle class.
Biden entered the speech with work to do shoring up his standing. Just 38% of U.S. adults approve of how he is handling his job as president, while 61% disapprove, according to a recent survey by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
The same survey found that more than 6 in 10 (63%) say they’re not very or not at all confident in Biden’s mental capability to serve effectively as president. A similar but slightly smaller share (57%) say that Trump lacks the memory and acuity for the job.
The already intense scrutiny of Biden’s age was magnified when special counsel Robert Hur raised questions about the president’s mental acuity in his report last month on Biden’s handling of classified information. Hur is set to testify Tuesday before lawmakers about his investigation.
Following the speech, Biden was set for a weekend of campaign travel, holding events in Pennsylvania on Friday and Georgia on Saturday. Trump, too, will be campaigning in Georgia that day. The president’s Cabinet also will fan out across the country to amplify his message.
The Biden campaign said it would host more than 200 watch parties around the country Thursday night, including in cities, suburbs and rural towns in battleground states. Campaign officials will use the events to recruit volunteers and encourage others to get involved in Biden’s reelection effort.

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