WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden on Tuesday night called on Congress to work with him to “finish the job” of reviving the economy and uniting the nation, speaking with State of the Union Address aimed at calming a country gripped by pessimism and rife with political discord.
In his 73-minute speech, Biden sought to portray a nation that has improved greatly from the one he led two years ago: from a faltering economy to one that is booming with new jobs; from a crippled, pandemic-weary nation to one that has now reopened, and to a democracy that has survived its greatest test since the Civil War.
“The story of America is a story of progress and resilience. Always move forward. Never give up. A story unique among all nations,” said Biden. “We are the only country that came out of every crisis stronger than when we entered it. That’s what we’re doing again.”
“We are not done by any means,” he declared.
The backdrop for the annual address was markedly different from the previous two years, with the Republican speaker now sitting blankly behind Biden, while newly empowered GOP lawmakers in the chamber at times shouted down him and his administration.
Biden sought to reassure the nation that his leadership had delivered results both at home and abroad as he also set out to prove his fitness for a likely re-election bid.
But there are many challenges for Biden: economic uncertainty, the weary war in Ukraine, growing tensions in relations with China, and much more. Signs of past trauma at the Capitol, most notably the Jan. 6, 2021 uprising, were inescapable: a large fence surrounded the complex, and lawmakers and attendees faced tighter-than-usual security.
From the beginning, the partisan divisions were clear. Democrats — including Vice President Kamala Harris — jumped to applaud as Biden began his speech. New Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, although he greeted the president warmly as he entered the chamber, remained in his seat.
Instead of offering sweeping policy proposals, the president chose to give a reassuring assessment of the country’s situation, saying that two years after the attack on the Capitol, America’s democracy was “unbreakable and unbreakable.”
He highlighted record job creation during his tenure as the country emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Biden also pointed to areas of bipartisan progress in his first two years in office, including the state’s vital infrastructure and high-tech manufacturing. And he said, “There’s no reason we can’t work together in this new Congress.”
“People have sent us a clear message. Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict will not lead to anything,” said Biden. “And that’s always been my vision for the country: to restore the soul of the nation, to restore the foundation of America — the middle class — to bring the country together.”
“We were sent here to finish the job!”
The president took the House floor at a time when only a quarter of US adults say things are going in the right direction in the country, according to a new poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. About three-quarters say things are going the wrong way. And most Democrats do not want Biden to run for another term.
He tried to confront these sentiments head on.
“You’re wondering if there’s more of a way for you and your children to move forward without stepping back, I get that,” Biden said. “That’s why we are building an economy where no one will be left behind. Work is coming back, pride is coming back because of the choices we made over the last two years.”
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who gained national prominence as former President Donald Trump’s press secretary, delivered the Republican response to Biden’s speech.
She focused much of her remarks on social issues, including racial issues in business and education, and the alleged censorship of big tech by conservatives.
“While you reap the consequences of their failures, the Biden administration seems more interested in lucid fantasy than the harsh reality that Americans face every day,” she said. “Most Americans just want to live their lives in freedom and peace, but we’re under attack from a left-wing culture war that we didn’t start and never wanted to fight.”
“A choice between normal and crazy,” she added.
After the lifting of restrictions related to COVID-19, the White House and lawmakers of both parties invited guests, whose presence on the floor of the House of Representatives brought home political messages. Among those seated next to First Lady Jill Biden were the mother and stepfather of Tyree Nichols, who was badly beaten by police in Memphis and later died. Biden’s other guests included rock star/humanitarian Bono and 26-year-old Brandon Tse, who disarmed a gunman in a shooting at Monterey Park in California last month.
“There are no words to describe the heartache and grief of losing a child,” Biden said after introducing RowVaughn and Rodney Wells to a standing ovation. Their grief was palpable as they stood and were recognized by the president and the audience. Biden called on Congress to “rise to the moment” after Nichols’ death to make meaningful changes.
Biden drew bipartisan applause when he praised most law enforcement officers as “good, decent people,” but added that “when police officers or police departments violate the public’s trust, we must hold them accountable.”
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus invited family members of those involved in police incidents as they sought to push for police reform in the wake of Nichols’ death.
Biden has changed his mind after spending his first two years pushing major bills such as a bipartisan infrastructure package, legislation to boost high-tech manufacturing and climate action. With Republicans now in control of the House, he’s focused on getting these massive pieces of legislation through and making sure voters recognize him for making improvements.
Biden, not known for his oratory skills, appeared relaxed and confident as he delivered his address. He made casual remarks, fueled by responses from Democratic lawmakers, who often stood to standing ovations and playfully engaged with his Republican critics.
Addressing Republicans who voted against the big bipartisan infrastructure bill, Biden said he would still make sure their favorite projects get federal support. “I promised to be a president for all Americans,” he said. “We will finance these projects. And we’ll see each other on the ground.”
The switch happened mostly out of necessity. The newly elected Republican Party wants to undo many of his accomplishments and has vowed to launch multiple investigations, including an examination of recently discovered classified documents from his time as vice president at his home and former office.
While he promised bipartisanship whenever possible, Biden also highlighted the sharp tension that exists between him and House Republicans: He discussed the GOP’s efforts to repeal the 2022 climate change and health care law passed by Democrats. , and their reluctance to raise the federal debt limit, the country’s legal borrowing authority, which must be raised later this year or face default.
“Instead of making the rich pay their fair share, some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to end every five years,” Biden said. “Other Republicans are saying that if we don’t cut Social Security and Medicare, they will allow America to default on its debt for the first time in our history.
“I won’t let that happen.”
Biden’s comments about entitlement programs drew an outcry from Republicans as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, D-Ga., and others jumped to their feet, some shouting “Liar!”
The president responded, “Stand up and show them: We’re not going to cut Social Security! We will not cut Medicare!”
As Republicans continued to protest his accusations, he said, “We have unanimity.”
While hopes for broad bipartisan engagement are slim, Biden has relayed his 2022 call for Congress to support his “agenda of unity” for action on the opioid epidemic, mental health, veterans’ health and cancer. He announced new executive action and urged lawmakers to take action to support new measures to support cancer research, address housing and suicide issues among veterans, expand access to mental health care and continue to fight the deadly fentanyl trade.
In fiery refrains, Biden said the phrase “get the job done” 13 times, urging lawmakers to complete his administration’s work to cap insulin costs for all Americans, fight climate change, raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations and ban assault weapons. . But on all of these fronts, a divided government is even less likely to yield than a Congress under the sole control of Democrats.
The speech came days after Biden ordered the military to shoot down an alleged Chinese spy balloon that flew brazenly across the country, captivating the nation and serving as a reminder of strained relations between the two world powers.
“Make no mistake: As we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country,” Biden said. “And we did.”
Last year’s appeal came days after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, and many in the West doubted Kiev’s ability to withstand the onslaught. Over the past year, the United States and other allies have sent tens of billions of dollars in military and economic aid to bolster Ukraine’s defenses. Now, Biden must advocate for sustaining that coalition as the war drags on, both at home and abroad.
“Together we did what America always does in its power,” Biden said. “We were leading. We united NATO and created a global coalition. We resisted Putin’s aggression. We were with the Ukrainian people.”
AP writer Fatima Hussain contributed to this report.