WASHINGTON – In a State of the Union address that sought to balance optimism with realism, President Joe Biden on Tuesday told a joint session of Congress the U.S. economy is emerging stronger from the coronavirus pandemic, but he urged lawmakers to help ensure the economy of the future doesn’t leave Americans behind.
In contrast to his previous State of the Union, which came just a week after Russia invaded Ukraine and was marked by a rare degree of unity, Biden’s appeals to Republicans were met with boos, jeers and more than a few shouted insults. Democrats responded with shushes – and at one point a chorus of “Shame!” – in a raucous scene that suggests bipartisanship may be hard to come by this year.
After the address, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane said her fellow Republicans were expressing “frustration over what the president was saying at times, compared to what we believe the truth to be.”
“On one hand, he gave lip service to wanting to work across the aisle, but then it was a pretty partisan speech that he delivered tonight,” she said. “It was more him reciting what he sees as his accomplishments.”
Several of those legislative accomplishments Biden cited were bipartisan, including a bill that invests $550 billion in new spending and tax cuts to revamp the nation’s infrastructure, and another that boosts U.S. manufacturing and scientific research. The president began his remarks by calling on members of both parties to continue that work, laying out “a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America.”
“We’re often told that Democrats and Republicans can’t work together, but over these past two years, we proved the cynics and the naysayers wrong,” Biden said. “Yes, we’ve disagreed plenty. And yes, there were times when Democrats had to go it alone. But time and again, Democrats and Republicans came together.”
But midway through the address, Biden’s tone changed.
When he accused Republicans of wanting to “take the economy hostage” unless Democrats meet their demands to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, the president cited a proposal from Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., to “sunset” Social Security and Medicare so that Congress would need to reauthorize the popular programs every five years.
That drew thunderous boos from Republicans, with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican who will headline the Kootenai County GOP’s Lincoln Day dinner Saturday, shouting, “Liar! Liar! Liar!”
From that point on, Biden largely turned his attention to “kitchen table” issues like reducing the cost of living by controlling prescription drug prices, giving school teachers a raise and ending “junk fees” that get added to airplane tickets and cable TV bills.
That prompted Greene to yell, “Communist!”
The United States’ tense relationship with China, already a focus of the Biden administration and lawmakers from both parties, rose to greater prominence in this year’s speech thanks to what the Pentagon has said was a Chinese surveillance balloon that floated across the country in the days before Tuesday’s speech.
The balloon traversed Alaska and Canada before it reentered U.S. airspace over North Idaho on Jan. 31, a Pentagon official told reporters, and ended its journey off the South Carolina coast, where an Air Force F-22 Raptor shot it down.
“In just the two years under the Biden administration, our nation is struggling from record-high inflation, increased energy and food costs, rising crime, a crisis at our southern border, fentanyl plaguing our communities, and the Chinese Communist Party infiltrating our farmland, our culture and our skies,” Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, said in a statement after the speech.
Biden also touched on policing in light of the recent death of Tyre Nichols.
Lawmakers and members of the Biden administration invited guests from across the country to highlight their priorities. Some of the most prominent were the mother and stepfather of Nichols, the Black man whose death at the hands of police in Memphis has raised the issue of police reform once again.
“There are no words to describe the heartbreak and grief of losing a child, but imagine what it’s like to lose a child at the hands of the law,” Biden said. “Let’s commit ourselves to make the words of Tyre’s mother come true – something good must come from this.”
Members of both parties applauded Nichols’ parents, as well as another guest, Brandon Tsay, who apprehended a mass shooter in Monterey Park, California, in January.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in a Monday interview she wanted to hear Biden celebrate legislative accomplishments like the bipartisan bill she helped pass in July 2022 to boost U.S. scientific research and manufacturing, especially for the semiconductor chips much of the economy relies on.
“I think this speech and where we’re headed is all about how we’re going to take the work that we were able to do last year and translate it,” she said, “into real solutions that are going to help make our nation and our manufacturers competitive.”
To highlight that work, Cantwell’s guest for the State of the Union was Mary Rezac, dean of Washington State University’s college of engineering and architecture, who called the CHIPS and Science Act “the most exciting thing I’ve seen come in my 30 years as an educator and researcher.”
Cantwell said the future will depend on people like Rezac and her colleagues turning the legislation Congress passed last year into results, citing the research being done at WSU on semiconductors and hydrogen fuel technology.
“I think she’s emblematic of the people we’re counting on to help carry out this next phase,” Cantwell said of Rezac. “We’re counting on Spokane, we’re counting on WSU, we’re counting on Vancouver. We’re counting on people doing more to really take the competitiveness of our nation seriously and help us translate this science into real solutions that are going to help our economy and our climate and everything else.”
When Biden called on Congress to pass legislation to secure the U.S.-Mexico border and reform immigration law, Republicans shouted, “Secure the border,” seemingly not in agreement. When the president talked about cracking down on the nation’s fentanyl crisis, one GOP lawmaker shouted, “It’s your fault.”
Rep. Kim Schrier, a Democrat whose district stretches from Wenatchee to the Seattle suburbs, invited Army veteran Jose Medina, who worked in her office for two years as a Wounded Warrior Project fellow, to highlight bills passed to help veterans. Congress passed bipartisan legislation in 2022 to expand medical coverage for veterans exposed to toxic substances from burn pits.
Schrier said before the address she hoped Biden would strike a balance between optimism about the nation’s economic recovery and the reality that many Americans still feel the pain of rising prices.
“He’s very good at understanding the kitchen table,” Schrier said. “I think about my parents. I mean, my mom knows what things should cost at the grocery store, and until they go back to what they should cost, she is going to feel economically insecure. We all still have sticker shock at the supermarket.”
Biden concluded his address with that mix of optimism and realism.
“Because the soul of this nation is strong, because the backbone of this nation is strong, because the people of this nation are strong, the state of the union is strong,” he said.
Correction: The original version of this story misspelled the name of Brandon Tsay, the man who apprehended a mass shooter in Monterey Park, California.