President Biden urged unity during his State of the Union address on Tuesday, but there was little of that on display in a raucous chamber where the president was heckled by a number of newly empowered House Republicans.
Biden’s speech was a blend of a victory lap over his first two years in office and a pitch to voters about what he would do with six more years if he were re-elected in 2024. The president rattled off a list of bipartisan legislation that he argued had revitalized the economy and shown the government can work for the public, while urging a newly divided Congress to “finish the job.”
“To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can’t work together and find consensus on important things in this Congress as well,” Biden said. “I think 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. And that’s always been my vision of our country, and I know it’s many of yours.”
He touted his work to improve the U.S. economy early in the address, noting that the January jobs report released last week showed unemployment dropped to 3.4 percent and that gas prices are down $1.50 a gallon from their peak.
And, he touted the passage of the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act and the bipartisan infrastructure law, taking a stab at Republicans who voted against the legislation but have celebrated projects it funds.
But even as he urged unity, Biden also put GOP lawmakers on the spot when he suggested that some Republicans wanted to take the economy “hostage” over the country’s debt limit by making cuts to Social Security and Medicare, which became an unusual and tense moment of a live back-and-forth between the president and the GOP.
“Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans — some Republicans want Social Security and Medicare to sunset. I’m not saying it’s the majority,” Biden said.
One Republican – Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, yelled “liar” toward Biden after those remarks, which drew boos from Republicans in attendance. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) shook his head as he sat next to Vice President Harris behind Biden, for the first time as Speaker of the House.
“Anybody who doubts it, contact my office, I’ll give you a copy of the proposal,” Biden said amid the jeering.
“If anyone tries to cut Social Security, I will stop them. And if anyone tries to cut Medicare, I will stop them,” Biden said. “I will not allow them to be taken away. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever.”
When boos and yells of “no” and “liar” erupted in the chamber, Biden replied with a thumbs up, “so we can all agree? Social Security and Medicare are off the books now?”
“Alright,” he added, with a thumbs-up, before Democrats and Republicans stood up to cheer.
The address also came with sobering moments of bipartisan applause, too.
With the parents of Tyre Nichols in the gallery for the address, his mother RowVaughn Wells applauded him when Biden said Tyre’s name with his mother telling the president, “Thank you.”
And lawmakers applauded Brandon Tsay, who disarmed a gunman in Monterey Park, Calif. last month who had shot roughly a dozen people at a Lunar New Year celebration.
Members of both parties also stood and recognized Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S., as Biden stressed his support for Ukraine amid Russia’s invasion.
Biden also sent a message to Chinese President Xi – just days after the U.S. military shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon that riveted the country.
Biden’s message was that the U.S. seeks “competition, not conflict.”
“But make no mistake: as we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did,” giving a brief nod to the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon shot down on Saturday.
While the president frequently emphasized bipartisanship on Tuesday, his speech also had an eye toward a possible re-election and Biden sought to draw a contrast with Republicans in key areas.
One area in which he credited only Democrats was his remarks on the Inflation Reduction Act, which is the sweeping climate, tax, and drug prices bill passed only with Democratic support. He said that “some members here are threatening to repeal the Inflation Reduction Act” but threatened to veto any legislation that would raise the cost of prescription drugs.
He noted some Republicans voted against the bipartisan infrastructure bill in 2021, but still asked for funding from the bill to fund projects in their districts.
“Don’t worry. I promised to be the president for all Americans. We’ll fund your projects,” Biden quipped. “And I’ll see you at the ground-breaking. This law will help further unite all of America.”
The president largely painted a rosy picture of the economy and the state of the country, though he acknowledged at times throughout the evening that there was more work to do.
A slew of recent polls showed many Americans don’t believe Biden has done much since taking office two years ago, or that they believe the country is on the wrong track. Tuesday served as a starting point for Biden to convince them otherwise.
“My fellow Americans, we meet tonight at an inflection point,” Biden said. “One of those moments that only a few generations ever face, where the decisions we make now will decide the course of this nation and of the world for decades to come.”
“As I stand here tonight, I have never been more optimistic about the future of America,” he added. “We just have to remember who we are.”
Updated 12:05 a.m.