Biden Takes It To Republicans In The State Of The Union

Heather Cox Richardson

The Republican Party now belongs to Trump. On the heels of his wins on Super Tuesday, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, his last serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination, suspended her campaign Wednesday morning. That afternoon, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who enabled Trump during his administration but apparently hoped to see him replaced at the top of the party, endorsed him.

Haley did not endorse former president Trump, suggesting he needed to earn the support of those Republicans who don’t back him. But Trump’s team has dismissed Haley supporters, saying he doesn’t need them.

In contrast, President Joe Biden continued to broaden the Democrats’ tent. Biden reached out in a statement, saying there was a place for Haley supporters in his campaign. “I know there is a lot we won’t agree on,” he said, “But on the fundamental issues of preserving American democracy, on standing up for the rule of law, on treating each other with decency and dignity and respect, on preserving NATO and standing up to America’s adversaries, I hope and believe we can find common ground.”

President Biden continued to outline the differences between MAGA Republicans and the rest of the country in tonight’s State of the Union address. 

Biden launched the speech, a draft of which the White House made available in advance, by referring to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s attempt in January 1941, about a year before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, “to wake up the Congress and alert the American people that…[f]reedom and democracy were under assault in the world.” Biden identified the same crisis in the present. “Not since President Lincoln and the Civil War have freedom and democracy been under assault here at home as they are today,” he said. 

Overseas, Russian president Vladimir Putin has invaded Ukraine and threatens Europe, Biden said, putting “the free world at risk.” He warned that those blocking aid to Ukraine are destroying “our leadership in the world” and blasted Trump for saying he would tell Putin to “do whatever the hell you want.” Biden urged Congress to “stand up to Putin. Send me the Bipartisan National Security Bill” that funds Ukraine.

Then he turned to the home front. Identifying those who attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, as “insurrectionists” who “had come to stop the peaceful transfer of power and to overturn the will of the people,” Biden called “January 6th and the lies about the 2020 election, and the plots to steal the election…the gravest threat to our democracy since the Civil War.” 

That threat remains, he said. He asked Republicans to “speak the truth and bury the lies.” He urged them to “[r]emember your oath of office to defend against all threats foreign and domestic. Respect free and fair elections. Restore trust in our institutions. And make clear—political violence has absolutely no place in America.” 

As Democrats stood to applaud, Republicans remained resolutely in their seats.

Biden continued his study in contrasts. He urged Republicans to guarantee the right to in vitro fertilization, a popular measure that they killed in the Senate again this week. He called out Republicans for trying to pass a national abortion ban and declared, “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.” 

He touted the economic successes of his administration—15 million new jobs, unemployment at 50-year lows, 16 million new businesses, 800,000 new manufacturing jobs, more people with health insurance, rising wages, falling inflation—and described a nation with a thriving middle class. He reiterated his support for unions, noting that he was the first president to walk a picket line, and praised United Auto Workers president Shawn Fain, who responded by putting his fist in the air and mouthing, “Thank YOU!” 

Biden then looked ahead to “a future where the days of trickle-down economics are over and the wealthy and biggest corporations no longer get all the breaks.” He promised to continue to fight unfair tax codes, price gouging, shrinkflation, and junk fees. 

Biden called out the Republicans for bowing to Trump’s demand that they kill the bipartisan border bill, which would provide 1,500 more border security officers, 100 more immigration judges, 4,300 more asylum officers, and 100 more high-tech drug detection machines and give the president authority to shut down the border when the number of migrants reaches a certain level. As House speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) shook his head in apparent disagreement, Senator James Lankford (R-OK), a staunch conservative who negotiated the bill, nodded, saying, “That’s true.” 

Biden took on the two biggest controversies in his presidency directly. “I know the last five months have been gut-wrenching for so many people, for the Israeli people, the Palestinian people, and so many here in America,” he said. 

He recounted the deadly attack on Israel on October 7, 2023, continued to defend Israel’s right “to go after Hamas,” and promised to continue to negotiate for the remaining hostages. He also said that the war “has taken a greater toll on innocent civilians than all previous wars in Gaza combined. More than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed…. Nearly 2 million more Palestinians under bombardment or displaced. Homes destroyed, neighborhoods in rubble, cities in ruin. Families without food, water, medicine.”

The U.S. has “been working non-stop to establish an immediate ceasefire that would last for at least six weeks,” Biden said. “It would get the hostages home, ease the intolerable humanitarian crisis, and build toward something more enduring.” The U.S. has “been leading international efforts to get more humanitarian assistance into Gaza” and is now building a temporary pier on the Gaza coast to “receive large ships carrying food, water, medicine and temporary shelters.”

Biden addressed Israel’s leaders directly: “As we look to the future, the only real solution is a two-state solution. I say this as a lifelong supporter of Israel and the only American president to visit Israel in wartime. There is no other path that guarantees Israel’s security and democracy. There is no other path that guarantees Palestinians can live with peace and dignity. There is no other path that guarantees peace between Israel and all of its Arab neighbors, including Saudi Arabia. Creating stability in the Middle East also means containing the threat posed by Iran.”  

Biden then took on the issue of his 81 years. Age makes “certain things become clearer than ever before,” he said. “I know the American story.”

“Again and again I’ve seen the contest between competing forces in the battle for the soul of our nation. Between those who want to pull America back to the past and those who want to move America into the future. My lifetime has taught me to embrace freedom and democracy. 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,” he said, in a reference to Trump, who will turn 78 in June. “An American story of resentment, revenge, and retribution.”

“[T]he issue facing our nation isn’t how old we are, it’s how old our ideas are,” Biden said. “Hate, anger, revenge, retribution are among the oldest of ideas, but you can’t lead America with…ideas that only take us back. To lead America, the land of possibilities, you need a vision for the future of what America can and should be…. I see a future where we defend democracy, not diminish it. I see a future where we restore the right to choose and protect other freedoms, not take them away. I see a future where the middle class finally has a fair shot and the wealthy finally have to pay their fair share in taxes. I see a future where we save the planet from the climate crisis and our country from gun violence. Above all, I see a future for all Americans…. So let’s build that future together.” 

Biden spoke powerfully for an hour and a half, veering off script to make points stronger or respond to Republican heckling. He seemed to enjoy the scrapping (and might even have set it up), using the back and forth to get Republicans to reject tax cuts just as last year he forced them to reject cutting Social Security.

The Republicans tapped Senator Katie Britt (R-AL) to give their rebuttal to the speech, evidently hoping to contrast her youth—she’s 42—with Biden’s age. But while her team helpfully distributed talking points to Republican influencers before either Biden or Britt had spoken, suggesting they describe her as “America’s mom” and say that Biden’s speech was “tone deaf” while hers was “the perfect pitch,” the fact that the Republicans had a female senator give what could be the most important speech of her life in a kitchen seemed to tell its own, more powerful, story.

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