Biden’s State of the Union Address Strikes Campaign Tone

Joe Biden delivered a State of the Union address with a full head of steam maintaining his momentum during aggressive and polarizing remarks that, at times, sounded identical to a campaign pitch. He was not subtle, vowing to “win again in 2024.”

The president yelled often. He sparred back and forth with Republicans. Keeping the Democratic Party’s liberal base at bay hasn’t put Biden in a strong position to get himself reelected: He has a lower approval rating at this point in his presidency, just 39% per the RealClearPolitics Average, than the three previous presidents. He may have achieved a necessary political resurrection by focusing on one of them: The subtext of Thursday night’s State of the Union was the looming rematch of the 2020 campaign. And while Biden never uttered the name “Donald Trump,” he made no less than a dozen references to “my predecessor” in a speech focused less on an enumeration of accomplishments and more on the coming electoral contrast. Biden made that clear from the jump.

Moments after handing copies of his remarks to Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker Mike Johnson, Biden quoted and then tore into Trump. “My predecessor, a former Republican president, tells Putin, quote, ‘do whatever the hell you want.’ That’s a quote,” he said of how Trump promises to deal with the Ukrainian land war.

“I think it’s outrageous, it’s dangerous and it’s unacceptable,” Biden added, in what would be a trendline throughout the night. Allies had been encouraging the president to be more aggressive. He delivered while delving into a favorite theme: the survival of self-government. Democracy itself, Biden insisted, was at risk with his old rival waiting at the gate this November.

“Not since President Lincoln and the Civil War have freedom and democracy been under assault here at home as they are today,” the president warned before tying together his political rival and a foreign dictator. “What makes our moment rare is that freedom and democracy are under attack,” he continued, “both at home and overseas, at the very same time.”

The domestic threat: His predecessor who sought “to bury the truth of January 6th.”

The international threat: Russian President Vladimar Putin, whom Biden warned, “We will not walk away. We will not bow down. I will not bow down.”

To deal with the former, Biden chided Republicans to accept what he called “a simple truth,” namely that “You can’t love your country only when you win.” To address the latter, the president did what he has done ever since Russian tanks began rolling across Ukraine, specifically to send more financial and military aid.

While the critique against Trump was constant and implicit, Biden delicately attempted to shore up his left flank. Dozens of pro-Palestine protestors attempted to blockade the presidential motorcade as it traveled east from the White House to Capitol Hill. He arrived only a few minutes late, but Biden cannot afford any roadblocks within his own party this November. The thousands of “uncommitted” protest votes cast in the Democratic primaries are a flashing hazard.

Biden delivered his most forceful assessment of the treatment of civilians in Gaza. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian American in Congress and an outspoken critic of the administration’s support of Israel, could be seen wiping away tears as Biden said that “more than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed, most of whom are not Hamas,” a reference to disputed numbers from the Hamas-aligned Gaza Health Ministry. Biden called again for a temporary cease-fire. He also announced that the United States would establish “a temporary pier in the Mediterranean on the Gaza coast” to bring needed humanitarian aid.

The calls for a cessation in the fighting were an olive branch to progressives, especially younger foreign policy-minded ones, who have split sharply with the president’s backing of Israel. There were no such alms offered to Republicans. Biden was ready for a fight on the right. He took a step back with mock surprise and a smile when walking into the chamber as Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene reached out to get his attention.

Johnson had warned Republicans not to break “decorum” by heckling or making outbursts, but after Special Counsel Robert Hur’s report described Biden as an “elderly man with a poor memory,” a high-profile back-and-forth is exactly what the president wanted. And he got it.

Green wore a red blazer, a red MAGA hat, and a white t-shirt that read “say her name, Laken Riley.” The name belongs to a nursing student from Georgia who was murdered last month. Jose Antonio Ibarra, an illegal immigrant from Venezuela charged with her murder, was arrested in New York previously, but was not detained or deported.

The tragedy has become a brutal avatar in the ongoing debate over border security. When Biden began discussing immigration, Green shouted, “Say her name!” He tried to comply but flubbed the pronunciation, erroneously calling the slain student “Lincoln Riley.”

Biden acknowledged Riley as “an innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal,” irritating progressive Democrats like Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro who later told reporters that the president was trafficking in dangerous rhetoric. But Biden offered sympathies to her parents. He confused everyone with an off-script non-sequitur of a rebuttal, asking, “How many of thousands of people have been killed by illegals?”

The White House has sought to shift the blame for the border crisis by first arguing that Trump left them an unworkable, inhumane system and more recently blaming him for blowing up a compromise package. Biden again urged passage of that now shredded legislation, but vowed he would not, as Trump has, “demonize immigrants saying they ‘poison the blood of our country.’”

The exchange, though perhaps not decisive, gave the Biden’s reelection team what it wanted. His advisors worry when Biden swings between extremes, sometimes lashing out angrily at reporters and other times responding to criticism in a literal soft-spoken whisper. On Thursday, he was undeniably assertive. The president even picked a fight with the Supreme Court.

The Biden-Harris campaign has promised to make abortion rights a center piece of its reelection strategy. The president addressed Latorya Beasley, a social worker from Alabama seated in the gallery, who conceived “thanks to the miracle of IVF,” a fertility treatment made illegal in that state. He also directed the attention of the chamber to Kate Cox, a Texas woman who had to travel out of state for an abortion due to legal restrictions. Both cases, he said, were the result of “the chaos” that resulted from Trump-appointed justices on the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.

“With all due respect, justices, women are not without electoral or political power,” he said looking at members of the high court  who sat feet away stone-faced. “You’re about to realize just how much you’re right about that.”

Biden also took a populist stance in attacking the wealthy for skirting taxes and corporations for, among other things, selling bags of chips “with fewer chips.”

He noted that unemployment was down and inflation was slowing without using the kind of jargon that economists spout. He also never said “Bidenomics,” a favorite term that progressive pollsters warned wasn’t breaking through. He asked voters to “remember” the economic pain of the pandemic and how he inherited “an economy that was on the brink.” By contrast, he continued, “our economy is the envy of the world.”

The president also yoked together two of his hobby horses. He often says that billionaires ought to pay more in taxes and that Social Security should not be cut. In front of Congress, Biden said both and together when surveying the “two ways we have to go on Social Security.”

“Republicans will cut Social Security and give more tax cuts to the wealthy,” he claimed, though the GOP has not called for such cuts.

“I will protect and strengthen Social Security and make the wealthy pay their fair share,” he concluded.

In the end, the speech was an us-vs.-them routine, more pointed in its identification of class and wealth than Biden has previously embraced. Progressive pollsters who huddled with the White House insisted that kind of rhetoric would lead to a boost in the polls. Eager for a second term, Biden adopted the argument during what could be his most viewed speech before the election.

The White House did not downplay the stakes, and while there is little chance that the big legislative reforms Biden wants will become law during an election year, one goal was achieved: A gaffe-free evening. Other than the occasional cough or allowing two words to slur together, the president mostly avoided mistakes. He could not escape one awkward moment, however.

“Abbey Gate,” Steve Nikoui, the father of one of the Marines killed during the Afghanistan withdrawal, shouted from the gallery. “Second Battalion, First Marines!” Biden looked up briefly as the bereaved father was arrested by Capitol Hill Police and then returned to his prepared remarks.

While Biden was fiery for much of the evening, he sought to disarm Republican critiques that the 81-year-old elder statesmen isn’t physically up to a second term. The president did it with a joke. “I know I may not look like it,” he smiled, “but I’ve been around a while. And when you get to my age certain things become clearer than ever before.”

“My lifetime has taught me to embrace freedom and democracy. A future based on the core values that have defined America. Honesty. Decency. Dignity. Equality,” he said.

“An American story of resentment, revenge, and retribution. That’s not me,” he concluded in an aggressive, and perhaps polarizing, State of the Union address.

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

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Photo: WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 07: WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 07: U.S. President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address during a joint meeting of Congress in the House chamber at the U.S. Capitol on March 07, 2024 in Washington, DC. This is Biden’s last State of the Union address before the general election this coming November. Biden was joined by Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA). (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)