By Kevin Liptak
When President Joe Biden took to the House Chamber on Tuesday for his annual State of the Union address, his message was one of unadulterated optimism – even in the face of open hostility.
The spectacle of Biden smiling and offering a pointed riposte through multiple rounds of heckling from some House Republicans was, in many ways, an apt illustration of his presidency and a useful preview of his likely 2024 candidacy.
A majority of Americans say he hasn’t accomplished much, many Democrats aren’t thrilled at the prospect of him running for reelection and he faces clear disdain from most Republicans. But Biden powered through. Delivering what was widely viewed as a test run for his reelection announcement, Biden claimed credit for progress made during his first two years in office while stressing the job isn’t finished.
He faced sometimes-unruly Republicans, with whom he spiritedly sparred from the podium on spending cuts. The feisty display drew cheers inside the White House and offered the best preview to date of the energy Biden hopes to bring to the campaign trail soon.
The speech carried a strain of populism rooted in strengthening the middle class – vintage Biden, but delivered at a pivotal moment for his political future.
No president enters his State of the Union wanting to recite a laundry list of accomplishments and proposals, but – almost inevitably – the speech often veers in that direction. Biden’s was no different, even as the president sought to tie everything together with a refrain of “finish the job” – a phrase that appeared 12 times in his prepared text.
Here are some of the key takeaways:
Connecting with Americans: If there is one political conundrum Biden’s advisers are urgently working to solve, it is why so many Americans seem to believe he has accomplished so little. By all accounts, Biden has passed large, historic pieces of legislation that could have transformational effects on the US economy. But polls show large majorities aren’t feeling them.
Biden hoped in his speech to bridge that gap, to demonstrate he cares about what Americans care about and to identify the problems he’s looking to fix.
“So many of you feel like you’ve just been forgotten,” he said. “Amid the economic upheaval of the past four decades, too many people have been left behind or treated like they’re invisible. Maybe that’s you, watching at home… You wonder whether a path even exists anymore for you and your children to get ahead without moving away.”
Bipartisanship: Working across the aisle was a theme throughout Biden’s speech. He started the address by acknowledging Congressional leaders from both parties, saying he is looking forward to working with Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
“Mr. Speaker, I don’t want to ruin your reputation but I look forward to working together,” Biden said as he launched into his speech.
He acknowledged that over the first years of his presidency, “we disagreed plenty.” But he appealed to his political rivals for cooperation.
“To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can’t work together in this Congress as well,” he said. “I signed over 300 bipartisan laws since becoming President,” the president added.
China: The country was included in the text of Biden’s speech well before a suspected spy balloon slipped into American airspace. But the incursion, which has generated a diplomatic backlash from China and drawn second-guessing from Republicans, lent new urgency to Biden’s message about competing with Beijing.
Biden and his aides believe steps to counter China are one of the rare areas where he could find bipartisan support. He saw some success on that front with the passage of a law boosting US semiconductor production last year.
Spars with Republicans: For the first 45 minutes of Biden’s address, that appeared to be the play for both sides. But when Biden began castigating Republicans for plans that would slash Social Security and Medicare, the decorum dropped. His accusations seemed to provoke Republicans, who lobbed accusations of “liar” from their seats in the chamber.
As lawmakers like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene interrupted Biden, McCarthy was silent – but his glare into the crowd spoke for itself. Later he found himself shushing his conference multiple times at outbursts interrupting the president.
Republicans look to “new generation”: The GOP’s choice to deliver their response to Biden’s speech, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is – at 40 years old – the nation’s youngest governor. Half the president’s age, her selection was a clear choice to contrast a different generation of leaders.
While she cited her tenure as White House press secretary to Donald Trump, she did not rely heavily on her association with the former president. Instead, she appeared to call for a changing of the guard – an appeal for generational change that could apply as much to Democrats and Biden as it could to Republicans and Trump. “It’s time for a new generation to lead. This is our moment. This is our opportunity,” she said.