When President Joe Biden took to the House Chamber on Tuesday for his annual State of the Union address, his message was one of unadulterated optimism – even in the face of open hostility.
The spectacle of Biden smiling and offering a pointed riposte through multiple rounds of heckling from some House Republicans was, in many ways, an apt illustration of his presidency and a useful preview of his likely 2024 candidacy.
A majority of Americans say he hasn’t accomplished much, many Democrats aren’t thrilled at the prospect of him running for reelection and he faces clear disdain from most Republicans.
But Biden powered through. Delivering what was widely viewed as a test run for his reelection announcement, Biden claimed credit for progress made during his first two years in office while stressing the job isn’t finished.
He faced sometimes-unruly Republicans, with whom he spiritedly sparred from the podium on spending cuts. The feisty display drew cheers inside the White House and offered the best preview to date of the energy Biden hopes to bring to the campaign trail soon.
The speech carried a strain of populism rooted in strengthening the middle class – vintage Biden, but delivered at a pivotal moment for his political future.
No president enters his State of the Union wanting to recite a laundry list of accomplishments and proposals, but – almost inevitably – the speech often veers in that direction. Biden’s was no different, even as the president sought to tie everything together with a refrain of “finish the job” – a phrase that appeared 12 times in his prepared text.
Rather than tout any one accomplishment, however, Biden hoped to address the national mood, one that remains downbeat even as the economy improves and the country attempts to return to normal amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Here are six takeaways from Biden’s State of the Union:
Biden spars with sometimes-unruly Republicans
In a room full of elected officials, identifying an adult shouldn’t be difficult. But heading into Tuesday’s speech, both Republican leaders and Biden’s team telegraphed a desire to act as the night’s “adult in the room” – the mature voice seeking common ground and lowering the temperature.
For the first 45 minutes of Biden’s address, that appeared to be the play for both sides. But when Biden began castigating Republicans for plans that would slash Social Security and Medicare, the decorum dropped.
His accusations seemed to provoke Republicans, who lobbed accusations of “liar” from their seats in the chamber.
That in itself wasn’t unprecedented. What happened next was rarer: Biden leaned into the opening, responding and engaging his hecklers.
“I enjoy conversion,” he quipped, suggesting they were in agreement on the need to protect the programs for senior citizens.
For Biden, House Republicans act as a useful foil as he prepares to announce his intentions for 2024. His jousting on Tuesday was the best glimpse of how he’ll approach his candidacy, at least until a Republican opponent emerges from the GOP primary process.
White House officials were thrilled by the off script back and forth.
“Couldn’t have written a better moment,” one official said.
More than the substantive back and forth, one official noted how it appeared to animate Biden in real time.
“He gets energy from his audience,” the official said. It’s not a new view on how Biden operates - his advisers constantly talk about how he finds his energy from engaging with people.
Biden and his team believe a serious focus on governing contrasts favorably with House Republicans, who they accuse of threatening to send the nation into default and piling up distractions as they investigate the president and his family.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy entered the speech vowing to treat Biden respectfully – and urging his Republican colleagues to do the same. It was a tall order, given the loose grasp he has on his conference and the propensity from certain Republicans for stunts.
As lawmakers like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene interrupted Biden, McCarthy was silent – but his glare into the crowd spoke for itself. Later he found himself shushing his conference multiple times at outbursts interrupted the president.