On February 7, the 118th United States Congress convened to listen to President Joe Biden’s second State of the Union speech, the first to be addressed to a Republican-controlled House of Representatives since 2018. The event came in a moment of high tension with China, with the US increasingly involved in helping Ukraine fight Russia and in a domestically polarized social and political environment that America likely has not experienced since the Civil War.
The partisanship and the hatred between the two parties were very evident and palpable. Republicans expressed their frustration loudly and persistently all through the speech, showing once more how very polarized America is today.
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Until recently, for instance, the strongest “acceptable” protest for the opposition party was to remain silent and not to applaud. In 2009, Republican congressman Joe Wilson received widespread criticism after he shouted, “You lie!” at then-President Barack Obama during an address to a joint session of Congress. This year, Biden was repeatedly interrupted by Republicans, with them booing and jeering several times. One of the louder episodes came when Andy Ogles (House Republican from Tennessee) blamed the President for the thousands of Americans dying every year from fentanyl. “It’s your fault,” he shouted.
Despite these theatrical exchanges, Biden offered some areas where there might be hope for bipartisanship, such as fighting the opioid epidemic and reinforcing public efforts on mental health care. However, the rest of the topics were consistently those embedded in the Democratic agenda: the President proposed a federal regulation of abortion rights, a new tax on billionaires, bigger labor union protections and a ban on assault weapons – none of which has any realistic chance of approval with the GOP holding the majority in the House.
Biden accused the Republicans of being willing to dismantle Medicare and Medicaid (obviously receiving insults and boos from the GOP part of the audience), and the rest of the speech was a detailed tour of everything he accomplished in his first two years in office (mostly focusing on the economic side). He spoke of better-than-expected jobs numbers and historically low unemployment. He praised his legislation that fosters competition with China in the manufacturing of semiconductor chips. Biden also announced a new rule requiring all federal construction projects to use American-made materials, and he touted never-seen-before climate investments in clean energy.
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Foreign affairs were addressed, but in a less-than-expected manner with the President proudly announcing durable and increasing support to Ukraine (Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the US was in the audience). He also said that he told Chinese President Xi Jinping that the US seeks “competition, not conflict”.
Perhaps, Biden’s speech can be better illustrated if we look at the things that he did not include. He did not talk about one of his major policy efforts of the first two years: the ambitious student loan forgiveness plan, which is currently held up in courts because of multiple legal challenges and may never be approved. There was only a brief comment about the Chinese balloon that was shot down on February 4th: “As we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did.” The President avoided talking about contentious issues regarding Afghanistan and Iran. He also left out the Republican investigation into his family and into the finances and conduct of his son Hunter. Donald Trump was obviously not attending the event. Interestingly, however, Biden did not pronounce the name of his White House predecessor (neither last year, in his first State of the Union).
Finally, the incumbent did not announce – not even allude to – whether he will run again for president in 2024. There were not many expectations he would have mentioned it during the speech, which is not the appropriate venue for such a declaration. So far, former President Donald Trump is the only candidate to formally announce a bid for 2024 – although Nikki Haley is very likely to do so shortly.