U.S. President Joe Biden sought to overcome pessimism about the country’s direction — and his own political prospects as he stares down a re-election bid next year — in his second State of the Union address to Congress and the nation Tuesday night.
But his optimistic vision faces stiff headwinds from Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, who the president called on to help him “finish the job” of rebuilding the economy from the COVID-19 pandemic and record inflation at home and abroad.
“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 said. “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.
“There is no reason we can’t work together in this new Congress.”
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, sitting behind the president for the first time since he took on the role, appeared unmoved by Biden’s pitch for bipartisanship and the listing of his administration’s accomplishments during two years of Democratic control of Congress.
McCarthy — who vowed to be “respectful” during the speech earlier Tuesday — is leading negotiations with Biden and Democratic leaders on raising the nation’s debt ceiling, which Republicans say must be tied to significant government spending cuts. Biden has pushed for a “clean” debt ceiling increase without cuts to future spending or existing programs like Social Security and Medicaid, longtime targets of fiscal conservatives.
Biden faced boos and shouts of “liar” during his speech when he mentioned some Republicans were eying changes to those programs. That led to what appeared to be an ad-libbed response from Biden, and led to a seemingly vocal pledge from members of both parties that the programs would remain untouched.
“I tell you, I enjoy consensus,” he said with a grin.
The president on Tuesday made the case that targeted government spending found in major bills he has signed like the US$1-trillion infrastructure act will achieve results in the coming months and years.
“Jobs are coming back, pride is coming back because of the choices we made in the last two years,” he said.
The speech showed Biden has shifted his focus from pushing for a flurry of major legislative victories to accepting more limited action with a divided Congress. House Republicans have vowed to undo many of those achievements while prioritizing investigations into allegations against Biden’s family and administration.
Biden promised he would veto any bill that would raise the cost of living for average Americans.
More Buy American policies
Biden has walked a delicate tightrope over the past two years, balancing the need to work with Republicans on some matters while criticizing the party’s positions. He began his term two weeks after rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol to disrupt the certification of his victory over Donald Trump, who remains a force within the Republican party.
Although he celebrated on Tuesday that democracy remained “unbowed and unbroken” two years after that Jan. 6, 2021, attack, Biden’s address showed his continued efforts to appeal to “America First” conservatives aligned with Trump’s policies while continuing to pursue Democratic priorities.
He announced new standards that will require all construction materials used in federal infrastructure projects to be made in the U.S., an expansion of his Buy American policy that has alarmed key trading partners like Canada.
“On my watch, American roads, bridges, and American highways are going to be made with American products as well,” he said.
A request for comment from Canadian Trade Minister Mary Ng’s office was not immediately returned Tuesday night.
Biden’s focus on the U.S. economy came after an unexpectedly strong jobs report last week that found unemployment fell to a 53-year low of 3.4 per cent, and over 517,000 jobs were added in January.
The White House is using those numbers and other signs of economic improvement, including falling gas prices, to counter Republican attacks and recent polling that found a majority of Americans are unsatisfied with the country’s direction and don’t want Biden to run for re-election.
Biden has not officially announced his re-election bid for 2024, which could pit him against Trump once again.
Crime and policing
Among Biden’s guests for the State of the Union was the mother and stepfather of Tyre Nichols, a Black man who died last month after being beaten by five police officers who are now charged with second-degree murder and other crimes.
Biden called for more action on national policing standards in response — a slim prospect in the divided Congress, although both parties rose to their feet to applaud the president’s remarks and Nichols’ family.
He also urged lawmakers to pursue meaningful immigration reform that would tighten border security, offer a path to citizenship for migrants who cross into the U.S. legally, and crack down on fentanyl trafficking that has led to a surge in fatal opioid overdoses.
Another guest, former House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul Pelosi — who was brutally attacked inside the couple’s San Francisco home last year — was introduced by Biden as an example of the need to reign in domestic extremism and political violence.
“We must give hate and extremism in any form no safe harbour,” he said. “Democracy must not be a partisan issue. It’s an American issue.”
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who gained a national profile as Trump’s press secretary, delivered the Republican response to Biden’s speech, which he alleged was full of falsehoods.
She focused 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 said. “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.”
Sanders also criticized Biden’s foreign policy that she alleged has made America less safe from threats posed by China and other hostile actors.
—With files from the Associated Press