President Joe Biden is using his State of the Union address Tuesday night to call on Republicans to work with him to “finish the job” of rebuilding the economy and uniting the nation as he seeks to overcome pessimism in the country and navigate political divisions in Washington.
The address comes as the nation struggles to make sense of confounding cross-currents at home and abroad — economic uncertainty, a wearying war in Ukraine, growing tensions with China and more — and warily sizes up Biden’s fitness for a likely reelection bid..
The setting for Biden’s speech, both politically and physically, was markedly different from a year ago, as Republican control of the House presented him with new challenges. The president was offering a reassuring assessment of the nation's condition rather than rolling out flashy policy proposals.
Lawmakers, members of the Cabinet, justices of the Supreme Court and the diplomatic corps gathered for the annual address as tighter-than-usual security measures returned in a vestige of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol. Biden was seen reviewing the final draft of his speech in his limousine as he departed the White House for the Capitol.
Biden was declaring that two years after the Capitol attack, America's democracy was “unbowed and unbroken.”
"The story of America is a story of progress and resilience," he was saying, according to excerpts released in advance by the White House, highlighting record job creation during his tenure as the country has emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Biden was also pointing to areas of bipartisan progress in his first two years in office, including on states' vital infrastructure and high tech manufacturing. And he says, "There is no reason we can’t work together in this new Congress.”
“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,” Biden is saying. “And that’s always been my vision for the country: to restore the soul of the nation, to rebuild the backbone of America — the middle class — to unite the country."
"We’ve been sent here to finish the job!”
The president is taking the House rostrum at a time when just a quarter of U.S. adults say things in the country are headed in the right direction, according to a new poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. About three-quarters say things are on the wrong track. And a majority of Democrats don’t want Biden to seek another term.
He is confronting those sentiments head on, aides say.
"You wonder whether a path even exists anymore for you and your children to get ahead without moving away, I get it,” Biden says. “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.”
Democratic stalwart Nancy Pelosi has been replaced as House speaker by Republican Kevin McCarthy, and it was unclear what kind of reception restive Republicans in the chamber would give the Democratic president.
McCarthy on Monday vowed to be “respectful” during the address and in turn asked Biden to refrain from using the phrase “extreme MAGA Republicans,” which the president deployed on the campaign trail in 2022.
“I won’t tear up the speech, I won’t play games,” McCarthy told reporters, a reference to Pelosi’s dramatic action after President Donald Trump’s final State of the Union address.
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who gained a national profile as Trump’s press secretary, was to deliver the Republican response to Biden’s speech.
She was to focus much of her remarks on social issues, including race in business and education and alleged big-tech censorship of conservatives.
“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 was to say, according to excerpts released by her office. “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.”
With COVID-19 restrictions now lifted, the White House and legislators from both parties invited guests designed to drive home political messages with their presence in the House chamber. The parents of Tyre Nichols, who was severely beaten by police officers in Memphis and later died, are among those expected to be seated with first lady Jill Biden. Other Biden guests include the rock star/humanitarian Bono and the 26-year-old who disarmed a gunman in last month’s Monterey Park, California, shooting.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus invited family members of those involved in police incidents, as they sought to press for action on police reform in the wake of Nichols' death. The White House, ahead of the speech, paired police reform with bringing down violence, suggesting that giving police better training tools could lead to less crime nationwide.
Biden is shifting his sights after spending his first two years pushing through major bills such as the bipartisan infrastructure package, legislation to promote high-tech manufacturing and climate measures. With Republicans now in control of the House, he is turning his focus to implementing those massive laws and making sure voters credit him for the improvements.
The switch is largely by necessity. The newly empowered GOP is itching to undo many of his achievements and vowing to pursue a multitude of investigations — including looking into the recent discoveries of classified documents from his time as vice president at his home and former office.
At the same time, Biden will need to find a way to work across the aisle to keep the government funded by raising the federal debt limit by this summer. He has insisted that he won’t negotiate on meeting the country’s debt obligations; Republicans have been equally adamant that he must make spending concessions.
On the eve of the president's address, McCarthy challenged Biden to come to the negotiating table with House Republicans to slash spending as part of a deal to raise the debt ceiling.
“We must move towards a balanced budget and insist on genuine accountability for every dollar we spend,” McCarthy said.
While hopes for large-scale bipartisanship are slim, Biden was reissuing his 2022 appeal for Congress to get behind his “unity agenda” of actions to address the opioid epidemic, mental health, veterans’ health and cancer. He was to announce new executive action and call for lawmakers to act to support new measures to support cancer research, address housing needs and suicide among veterans, boost access to mental health care, and move to further crack down on deadly trafficking in fentanyl.
The White House said the president would call for extending the new $35 per month price cap on insulin for people on Medicare to everyone in the country. He would also push Congress to quadruple the 1% tax on corporate share buybacks that was enacted in the Democrats' climate and health care bill passed last year known as the Inflation Reduction Act.
The speech comes days after Biden ordered the military to shoot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon that flew brazenly across the country, captivating the nation and serving as a reminder of tense relations between the two global powers.
Last year's address occurred just days after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine and as many in the West doubted Kyiv’s ability to withstand the onslaught. Over the past year, the U.S. and other allies have sent tens of billions of dollars in military and economic assistance to bolster Ukraine’s defenses. Now, Biden must make the case — both at home and abroad — for sustaining that coalition as the war drags on.