President Joe Biden avoided any overt mention of a potential 2024 reelection campaign in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, but nevertheless clearly set the stakes for the upcoming election, conveying a message of optimism while arguing that America needs to choose “stability over chaos.”
There is a lot of reason for optimism: Democrats just had one of the best midterm elections ever for the party of the incumbent president, a recent jobs report suggests that the US economy may actually be good, inflation is falling, and the end of the Covid-19 national emergency is nigh.
But polling suggests most Americans still aren’t enthusiastic about the economy or the direction the US is headed. And even most Democrats are wary about the prospect of Biden running again at the age of 80, nor are they excited at the prospect of a Biden-Trump redux. Biden had some of the lowest approval ratings of any second-year president, behind only Trump, the New York Times noted. Tuesday night was an opportunity for Biden to remind the nation of his accomplishments — and to make the case for why he’s still Democrats’ best bet.
During the speech, he touted his biggest legislative accomplishments during the first half of his term, including the passage of a bipartisan infrastructure bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, and the bipartisan CHIPS Act, which aims to increase semiconductor production in the US. And he called for police reform; protection for abortion rights and voting rights; a federal assault weapons ban; reducing costs associated with health care, child care, and education; and preserving Medicare and Social Security while raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans and corporations.
“Jobs are coming back, pride is coming back because of the choices we made in the last two years. This is a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America and make a real difference in your lives,” Biden said.
But whether that’s enough to convince Democratic primary voters thirsting for a fresh face remains to be seen.
Here are the biggest winners and losers of the night.
Winner: The ad-libbing old-school Joe Biden
No one can handle a booing like Scranton Joe. Though it took him a minute to warm up at the start of his address, the Biden on display Tuesday night felt like a flashback to the Obama-era vice president that inspired a thousand memes and proved his mastery of retail politics. He quickly veered off the script of his prepared remarks, ad-libbing jokes, snapping back at Republican heckles, and flashing a smile before speaking over jeers.
For example, when he referenced some Republican promises to repeal his signature Inflation Reduction Act and they clapped, he let them finish before delivering a stinging joke: “That’s okay. As my coach would say, ‘lots of luck in your senior year.’” Even House Speaker Kevin McCarthy couldn’t help but smile.
Like in the old days, some of his ad-libs didn’t land. One of his loudest shouts came after contrasting American democracy and alliances with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s tenure. “Name me a world leader who’s changed places with Xi Jinping. Name me one!” Biden shouted. But the moment didn’t really go anywhere.
For the most part, Biden was quick with his comebacks. Republicans booed when he suggested they would try to place restrictions on Social Security and Medicare. Biden’s response to being called a “liar” by Republicans in the audience? “I’m politely not naming them, but it’s been proposed by some individuals.” —Christian Paz
Winner: Long-shot bills on gun control and police reform
With the family of Tyre Nichols in the audience, Biden spoke emotionally about the enduring problem of police violence, particularly its disproportionate effect on Black Americans. After explaining “the talk” — guidelines for conduct many Black American parents give their children to reduce their chances of being killed by police — Biden called for “more resources to reduce violent crime and gun crime; more community intervention programs; more investments in housing, education, and job training.”
Biden highlighted the executive order he signed on policing, which limited no-knock warrants and chokeholds by federal law enforcement and mandated better record-keeping on police misconduct. And he called on Congress to “finish the job on police reform” by passing legislation like the George Floyd Justice in Policing act.
But Biden also walked the moderate line on policing he has maintained since the 2020 campaign, arguing both that “most cops and their families are decent honorable people” who need more, not fewer, resources to maintain public safety and that “when police departments violate the public trust, they must be held accountable.”
Biden used his segment on policing to segue into a discussion of gun violence, echoing the call of Uvalde parents to “do something.” He again called for a federal ban on assault weapons like those used in recent mass shootings in California, which are designed to kill efficiently, without the shooter having to reload frequently. “Ban assault weapons now. Ban them once and for all,” Biden said.
Last year, Congress passed its first federal gun safety law in nearly three decades, making strides in preventing guns from falling into the hands of dangerous individuals. But the chance that the currently Republican-controlled House goes any further is slim, making the proposal more of a signal of what might be included in Biden’s platform for reelection. —Sean Collins and Nicole Narea
Winner: Great power competition
The balloon was there in spirit. Tonight, President Biden said he was committed to countering China by “modernizing our military to safeguard stability and deter aggression.” He described China as “intent on dominating” in industry and technology. He talked about protecting the US position on supply chains and manufacturing, which is all about countering China. He also called Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine “a test for the ages.”
Biden’s speech exemplifies his foreign policy focus on Russia and China, two great powers challenging the US. (After a generation of American interventions in the Middle East and South Asia, it’s no longer State-of-the-Union-worthy.) The framework of Great Power Competition has become a bipartisan consensus in Washington, often expressed with hawkish rhetoric. So Biden’s point that “I’ve made clear with President Xi that we seek competition, not conflict” is an important one.
Biden says, “winning the competition should unite all of us.” That’s only part of the equation, however. He’ll need to tackle global problems — like the climate crisis, which he also emphasized — and that will take partnerships with many international countries and complex coalitions. Competing with China and Russia may be necessary to win the political conversation in Washington, but it’s not sufficient to address the bigger issues over the horizon. —Jonathan Guyer
Loser: Protection for abortion rights
Biden said he’d veto any national abortion ban that crosses his desk, such as the 15-week ban proposed by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham last year. And he called on Congress to codify Roe v. Wade, an unlikely prospect given the GOP-controlled House and a slim Democratic majority in the Senate.
But beyond that, Biden didn’t talk much about abortion at all — a puzzling choice given that Democrats owe their midterm performance, including historic wins at the state level in places like Michigan and Kansas, in no small part to voters who came out in support of abortion access.
Abortion has never been a subject that Biden, a practicing Catholic, has been particularly comfortable talking about. He was previously criticized for never saying the word “abortion,” and activists called on him to push Congress to abolish the filibuster in order to codify Roe. But in 2020, he did reverse his support for the Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal dollars from being used to fund abortions.
Abortion will likely continue to animate Democratic voters in 2024, with abortion activists already gearing up to pass more ballot initiatives shoring up abortion rights. —Nicole Narea
Loser: The energy transition
Biden predictably took a victory lap on the Inflation Reduction Act’s climate investments in electric vehicles, energy-efficient appliances, charging stations, and infrastructure, while noting how much there is left to do. “The climate crisis doesn’t care if your state is red or blue,” he said. “It is an existential threat.” But there was an important nuance to Biden’s comments about Big Oil’s record-breaking year of profits, which totaled about $200 billion for 2022. He slammed the oil industry for its profiteering, but also for investing “too little of that profit to increase domestic production and keep gas prices down.” He went off script here as well, saying, “We’re going to need oil and gas for a while,” and “at least another decade” to rowdy laughter from the congressional Republicans.
That confusing, improvised line aside, it was an important signal from Biden. Big Oil profits are a popular punching bag in Democratic presidential speeches, and were familiar in the Obama era too. But instead of calling for more investment in the clean energy sector, Biden instead had the summer’s high gas prices top of mind. Of course, the president doesn’t control oil and gas prices. But his speech does signal that Biden has no interest in pursuing the more aggressive actions climate groups are still calling for — like blocking permitting for gas export terminals (these terminals compress natural gas into liquified natural gas that’s easier to ship), and new permitting. Ironically, economists say those gas export terminals are what’s currently driving up natural gas prices. —Rebecca Leber
Winner: Taxing the rich
Biden has spent much of the last two years talking up his efforts to reduce the federal deficit without cutting many of the social welfare programs that he and his party have championed. Tuesday night, he made a passionate case for taxing billionaires and Fortune 500 companies that Biden said are reaping record profits without paying “their fair share.”
“I’m a capitalist,” the president said. “But I think a lot of you at home agree with me that our tax system is not fair.”
In a nod to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s efforts to pass a corporate minimum tax and her ultra-millionaire tax proposal during the 2020 primary, Biden spoke about the corporate tax hikes that are a part of the Inflation Reduction Act. Republicans interrupted him with jeers, but he made an additional plea to tax the rich: “Let’s finish the job. Reward work, not just wealth. Pass my proposal for a billionaire minimum tax.”
Details aren’t too clear on whether that would look like his previous proposal in the 2023 budget. That plan called for a 20 percent tax on taxpayers with a net worth of over $100 million. But his message to Republicans was clear: Taxing the rich is popular, so why not do it? —Christian Paz
Winner: Current Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries
The biggest looming legislative crisis this year is House Republicans’ stated opposition to raising the federal debt ceiling unless Biden and Senate Democrats agree to major spending cuts. But those hypothetical spending cuts apparently won’t include Medicare or Social Security — at least if you take seriously Biden’s live “negotiating” with Republicans on Tuesday night.
“All of you at home should know what their plans are,” Biden said, before going on to claim some Republicans want to take the two programs away from seniors. “Some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset every five years.” This was a reference to the much-disavowed 2022 plan by Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) to sunset all federal laws every five years, which GOP leader Mitch McConnell denounced just days later, but which was repeatedly used as a club by Democrats against Republicans during campaign season.
So in the House chamber, Republicans were understandably a bit irked to hear Biden characterize this as their party’s plan, and interrupted him with boos. Biden seemed to recognize that this was a bit of dirty pool on his part, so he started ad-libbing: “Not saying a majority of you! I don’t think it’s significant — it is being proposed by individuals. I’m not naming them!”
In the end, Biden decided to declare victory. “Folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now,” he said, to widespread cheers and applause. “All right, we’ve got unanimity.” After more cheers, added, “If anyone tries to cut Social Security, which apparently no one is going to do, I will stop them.”
It was a telling moment. On one hand, Republicans argue that spending and the debt must be addressed; while on the other they do not want to be associated in any way, shape, or form with cutting Social Security or Medicare for current beneficiaries, which together make up about a third of yearly federal spending.
Now, some Republicans still occasionally open up a bit more about how “reforms” (cuts) may be necessary for future beneficiaries — Kevin McCarthy nods to this on his website, and key House committee chairs have talked about creating a commission to study changes like increasing the retirement age — but it seems that current seniors have nothing to worry about. —Andrew Prokop