The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A combative Biden defends record and challenges Republicans with 2024 in view

The president’s State of the Union was a preview of his likely reelection campaign and may be remembered for his testy engagement with Republican lawmakers

Republican lawmakers heckled and interrupted President Biden multiple times during his State of the Union address on Feb. 7. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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President Biden opened his State of the Union address with an appeal to Republicans for bipartisan cooperation. But that hardly summed up the atmosphere Tuesday night as Biden aggressively defended his economic record and pointedly challenged Republicans not to undo it.

Through much of the 72-minute speech, Biden was edgy, energetic and combative. He plowed through applause lines to keep up his pace. He jousted with Republicans in the House chamber over tampering with Social Security and Medicare, drawing heckling and catcalls from some — and a shout of “liar” from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) — as he drew contrasts between his agenda and what he said was theirs. Rarely has such give-and-take featured so prominently in a State of the Union address.

The president presented himself as a populist with ideas to help blue-collar workers and restore America’s manufacturing might. He went after big drug companies and big energy companies. More than once he threatened vetoes of possible Republican initiatives and declared that he would not allow the economy to be held hostage over raising the debt ceiling.

“Let’s finish the job,” he said in a refrain repeated over and over as he ticked through accomplishments of his first two years in office and offered new proposals. If not the start of a reelection campaign, it was as close as a State of the Union could be to that kickoff. Many of the proposals he talked about stand little chance of being enacted in a narrowly divided Congress, but that message to finish the job nevertheless will likely form the basis for his expected 2024 campaign.

Biden begins the second half of his first term battling some of the same questions that dogged him through much of his first two years — only now with Republicans in control of the House and determined to thwart his agenda. For all the legislation passed and signed during his first two years, Biden has gotten little credit from the American people. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that 62 percent of Americans say he has accomplished “not very much” or “little or nothing”

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) called President Biden a liar when he discussed GOP debt-reduction plans during his State of the Union address on Feb. 7. (Video: The Washington Post)

His speech was designed to start chipping away at that problem. It was a defense of what he has done, a blueprint of the president’s priorities for the year ahead and a signal to Republicans, whether those in Congress or those elsewhere who would seek to challenge him in a general election, that he is ready, perhaps eager, for a vigorous testing of competing ideas.

Biden could point to major accomplishments during his first two years in office: a mega-stimulus package, a bipartisan infrastructure bill, bipartisan legislation to revitalize domestic semiconductor manufacturing and, on a party-line vote, the biggest initiative to combat climate change in history.

Legislation that ambitious seems unlikely with now-divided government, but one big test of whether the two sides can work together will come over the need to raise the government’s borrowing limit later this year to avoid a default that could throw the economy into a tailspin. Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who sat, often expressionless, behind the president during the speech, are fencing with one another over the issue. Right now, the jostling has been polite. That likely will change as the deadline nears, but the question is whether the two sides can find an equitable way through.

As much as he touted economic progress, Biden also had to acknowledge that many Americans aren’t feeling very positive about the state of the country. “Amid the economic upheaval of the past four decades, too many people have been left behind or treated like they’re invisible,” he said. “Maybe that’s you watching at home. You remember the jobs that went away. And you wonder whether a path even exists anymore for you and your children to get ahead without moving away. I get it.”

Biden’s advisers are frustratingly aware that most Americans know little of what has passed Congress and feel the effects even less. But they believe voters are open to hearing the president’s case, that many Americans still dubious can be persuaded by what they will see in their own lives and communities. What Democrats can’t be certain of is whether Biden has the salesmanship and persuasiveness needed to make the case on his behalf.

Biden’s allies argue that what was abstract last year or the year before — the passage of big pieces of legislation — will become more concrete in the coming two years as construction begins on roads and bridges or the price of insulin drops or companies begin to invest in local economic development projects, with government funding.

Conditions in the country have changed since Biden took the oath of office in January 2021, as he noted in his speech. Two years ago, he inherited from former president Donald Trump a still-raging pandemic, a troubled economy, racial divisions in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd and a nation on edge after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by Trump followers.

The pandemic has eased, though the hangover has negatively affected the public mood. The economy is in a different place but not without problems still; inflation has been the biggest worry for most Americans, while the threat of a downturn still lingers despite a robust jobs market. Racism and antisemitism persist, as do systemic concerns about the use of force by law enforcement, as last month’s killing of Tyre Nichols at the hands of five Memphis police officers attests. With Nichols’s parents in the audience, Biden called for enactment of police reform legislation. Later, he demanded a ban on assault weapons, citing mass shootings that continue to plague the country.

Threats to democracy still exist, as well, despite a midterm election that brought defeats to some of the most visible and virulent election deniers and no serious claims of fraud. As Biden noted Tuesday, “Two years ago, our democracy faced its greatest threat since the Civil War. Today, though bruised, our democracy remains unbowed and unbroken.” Without mentioning Trump, he denounced the “big lie” as he paid tribute to Paul Pelosi, husband of former House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who was brutally attacked in their San Francisco home last fall by an assailant who Biden said was “unhinged” by the false claims of a stolen election. Paul Pelosi was in the audience as a guest of first lady Jill Biden.

No president in decades has weathered his first midterm election as successfully as did Biden, but in the end, Democrats still narrowly lost their majority in the House. That changes the terms of engagement that will influence the next two years, which is the presidential campaign cycle.

House Republicans are determined to test their own powers, push their own agenda and resist the president’s initiatives. They are also planning investigations into the administration and Biden’s son, Hunter. It is a combustible mix. It wasn’t easy for Biden to get things done when the Democrats had slender majorities in both chambers. Everything will be even more difficult now — and more contentious.

The president’s advisers are already geared up to confront congressional Republicans. Coming clashes with Republicans are guaranteed. Each side sees points of difference that favor them politically, Biden on abortion and Republicans on the border and immigration. The president framed some of these choices in his speech.

Biden spoke of unity as he opened his speech. “The people sent us a clear message,” he said. “Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict, gets us nowhere.”

By all accounts, Biden believes in those appeals, shaped by more than three decades in the Senate. Told by friends and allies two years ago that his appeals for unity represented misplaced optimism in such a polarized country, he now looks at the bills that were passed with Republican support and believes that more can be done even with a Republican majority in the House.

But after the president spoke for more than an hour in the House chamber, the realities of what lies ahead became more apparent. Republicans are prepared to challenge Biden, and he is ready to challenge back. There might be cooperation in some areas, but both sides know the stakes of the 2024 election are enormous.

As Biden works through his challenges, his focus always will be on persuading the public that he is the better choice to continue leading the country come January 2025, regardless of whether his opponent is Trump or some other Republican. That election is a long way off and much that isn’t predictable will happen before November 2024. Still, Tuesday’s State of the Union will be remembered as Biden’s first steps in making his case.