Feb 8, 2023, 7:24am EST
politicsNorth America

Six big takeaways from Biden’s raucous State of the Union


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The News

REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

President Biden delivered a surprisingly punchy State of the Union address Tuesday, celebrating his administration’s economic record on jobs and infrastructure while jousting with heckling Republicans in scenes that about half the internet compared to something out of British parliament.

Here’s what leaped out to our team.

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The presidency Trump always wanted? This is hardly a new phenomenon, but one of the most striking aspects of Biden’s speech was how much of it reflected the same economic themes Trump emphasized in his  campaigns, with mixed success in office. “Buy America” rules, bringing supply chains back from China, new manufacturing investments away from the coasts (with a special shout out to non-college workers), yooge infrastructure spending, big bipartisan deals, and Medicare negotiating drug prices. Even going after stock buybacks was a fleeting Trump pitch at one point. Democrats, of course, would say that Trump merely co-opted the economic nationalist message Biden and others have used since FDR. But they still need to steal it back, and while Biden’s approval numbers on the economy are weak, picture this State of the Union with a couple of billion dollars in advertising behind it in the Rust Belt and you can see the outlines of a formidable campaign. Trump himself even seemed to agree in a game-recognize-game kind of way, taking a rare break from attacking Biden to say he “ended up the evening far stronger than he began.” —Benjy Sarlin

Republicans got touchy about Social Security. Biden’s riff on the debt ceiling showdown turned into the most raucous and memorable moment of the night, as the president accused Republicans of threatening to take the economy hostage in order to put Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block. He trod carefully, saying that “some” GOP lawmakers had proposed cutting the programs, or sunsetting them entirely, even if the majority of the party didn’t agree. This was, narrowly speaking, true. Florida Sen. Rick Scott notoriously rolled out a midterm-season agenda that would sunset all federal programs every five years, and some conservatives have suggested entitlement cuts should be on the table as part of debt ceiling talks — even as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has insisted they won’t be. Still, the GOP crowd responded with a volley of boos — Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene could be seen shouting “liar” — which led a grinning Biden to go off script and joke that Republicans had experienced a sudden “conversion.” “So folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right?” he said with a thumbs up (he meant table). The whole back and forth revealed how viscerally angry Republicans are about this particular line of attack, which they feel unfairly tars them with positions few lawmakers are advocating at this moment. Of course, Democrats have said something similar about attacks over, say, defunding the police. After the speech, Scott called Biden’s remarks “a simple lie.” — Jordan Weissmann

Biden still wants to pass legislation. Speaking to a divided Congress for the first time, Biden checked down a reasonably short menu of legislative ambitions. Some were mostly symbolic: He talked up the discarded remnants of Build Back Better and pressed for passage of an expanded child tax credit and Medicaid expansion, paired with a minimum income tax on billionaires and quadrupling the stock buyback tax. But he also encouraged bipartisan initiatives on veterans’ benefits, strengthening mental health, and cracking down on fentanyl trafficking. Republicans didn’t initially appear won over by Biden’s olive branch. Departing the Capitol, GOP Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia described the speech as “a laundry list” more geared for a campaign stop. Despite her criticism, the deal-making West Virginia Republican told Semafor she believed bolstering competitiveness against China could be an area of bipartisanship. For Biden, that’s the bat signal. — Joseph Zeballos-Roig


Biden sought to lower the temperature on China. Despite Marjorie Taylor Greene carrying a big white balloon around the U.S. Capitol today, Biden didn’t dwell on the uproar over China’s spycraft in any detail. Biden made just one oblique reference, saying: “As we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did.” Instead, Biden returned to the spirit of his meeting with Xi Jinping in Bali that successfully lowered tensions between the two superpowers. “I’ve made clear in my personal conversations with President Xi that we seek competition, not conflict,” he said. He still threw in one ad-libbed barb, (“Name me a world leader who’d change places with Xi Jinping!”) and suggested Americans should unite around big new efforts to invest in science and advanced technologies to compete with China. Rep. Michael McCaul and Speaker Kevin McCarthy are both expected to poke US-China relations with announced trips to Taiwan; Biden is laying down terms for engagement. “I am committed to work with China where we can advance American interests and benefit the world,” he said. — Steve Clemons

The return of police reform? Biden asked Congress to “finish the job on police reform” after negotiations collapsed in 2021. He touted extra police training in particular but seemed to get at the heart of why talks halted in the first place when he said law enforcement must be held accountable for violating the public’s trust. Notably, many Republicans applauded his comments along with Democrats. Reform negotiations between Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. stalled more than a year after George Floyd was murdered. But the killing of Tyre Nichols, who was brutally beaten by five police officers in Memphis, Tennessee, has reignited conversations among members of Congress. “I want this bill done in 2023,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas told Semafor following the speech. “And I think the President captured the urgency of the moment.” — Kadia Goba

Sarah Huckabee Sanders would rather talk about something else. Every State of the Union response is written before the president enters the House chamber, with no knowledge of what the opposition needs to respond to. It’s a thankless task, and Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders approached it by rebutting ideas Biden ignored, and was never likely to bring up; a campaign speech for someone to deliver in 2024, released a little early. Biden promised to protect “every woman’s” right to abortion, and Huckabee Sanders said he’d surrendered to a “woke mob who can’t even tell you what a woman is.” Her condemnation of how “big government colludes with Big Tech,” a nod to censorship concerns,  came right after Biden asked Congress to “stop Big Tech from collecting personal data on kids and teenagers online.” Biden made one reference to the Equality Act, which would ban discrimination based on “gender identity” and won’t pass in Congress; Huckabee Sanders’ reference to people being forced to “salute their flags” framed this as a veritable White House obsession. (She didn’t say who “they” were, but channeled conservative irritation at pride flags being flown in front of government buildings.) Last year’s SOTU response from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds — another heartland governor, another age contrast with Biden — portrayed her reddening state as a model for Democrats to follow. Huckabee Sanders portrayed hers as a refuge, ready to resist the administration until Donald Trump returned to replace it. — David Weigel