The call to action during President Biden’s State of the Union address on Tuesday — “Let’s finish the job” — would never be mistaken for soaring poetry. But perhaps that’s the point. In his speech, as throughout his first two years in office, Biden made a powerful case for governing in prose.
The president took advantage of the national television audience the speech always draws to make the case that his worldview has been proved correct: Even at a time of extreme polarization, bipartisanship is not only possible but also necessary. He said there is “no reason we can’t work together and find consensus in this Congress.”
Really? Did Biden hear the MAGA extremists who repeatedly heckled him, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who yelled “Liar!” when the president said that some Republicans want to “sunset” Medicare and Social Security?
Oh, he heard them, all right. Biden came prepared for catcalls from far-right members of the new House majority. I wondered at times whether I was watching a State of the Union address or a raucous session of Prime Minister’s Questions in the British House of Commons. Rather than being rattled or angered by GOP outbursts, Biden seemed to relish them — at times, even to provoke them. And he tossed out an ample supply of folksy Bidenisms in response.
My favorite was when he praised the provision in the Inflation Reduction Act, approved last year, that capped the cost of insulin at $35 a month for seniors on Medicare. He called on Congress to “finish the job” and extend that cap for all Americans. When someone on the Republican side of the room remonstrated, Biden paused before departing from his script to reply: “As my football coach used to say, lots of luck in your senior year.”
Then he translated into standard English: If anyone tries to repeal the Inflation Reduction Act, “I will veto it.”
Biden took the same playful approach when he challenged Republicans to spell out their economic plans and stop threatening to send the federal government into default by refusing to raise the debt ceiling. And while he was touting the benefits of the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that he signed into law in 2021, he noted that some Republican members of Congress had voted against it. Nevertheless, he said, “I’ll see you at the groundbreaking.”
The president’s point was that despite all the hyperpartisan, apocalyptic rhetoric, the federal government has been functioning. Progress is messy, halting and incremental, but it does happen — inch by inch, step by step, mile by mile.
Biden used the august occasion — and used undisciplined Republicans as foils — to display his own vigor, sense of humor and aura of command. Behind him, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) appeared at several moments to try to shush the most voluble Republicans, perhaps knowing the clash wasn’t going well for his party.
There have been times the past two years when Biden looked and acted his age — moments in which he seemed tired, lost his place in a speech or went off on some obscure tangent. But not on Tuesday night. Biden is 80, and it is legitimate to ask whether he is too old to seek another term. With this speech, he gave an answer. He sure sounded like a man who’s running.
For Democrats, he pledged to move forward on issues that fire up the base, such as protecting abortion rights. And with the mother and stepfather of Tyre Nichols in first lady Jill Biden’s box, the president even got a bipartisan standing ovation with a call for police reform.
Can Biden’s words really be translated into legislation by this Congress? Realistically, the assumption has to be that most, if not all, of Biden’s proposals for legislative action are dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled House. Even if McCarthy wanted to, could he convince his caucus to approve new taxes and strengthen the social safety net? Can the speaker even think about meeting Biden halfway on any hot-button issue without jeopardizing his own job, given that any GOP House member can force a vote on taking away McCarthy’s gavel?
There is, however, great peril for the slim Republican majority, in spending the next two years saying no to everything that Biden and the Democrats propose, while passing “statement” bills that have no chance of making it through the Senate. Republicans might believe their planned kangaroo-court investigations of Hunter Biden and other manufactured villains will win them support, but I am skeptical. Getting something done is usually a better political strategy than getting nothing done.
And if they thought they had a punching bag in Biden, they were wrong. They have a puncher instead.