The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sarah Huckabee Sanders goes at ‘woke’ left in State of Union response

On Feb. 7, Arkansas Gov. Huckabee Sanders (R) said the Democrats had failed the public in her official Republican response to the State of the Union address. (Video: The Washington Post)
5 min

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who parlayed her high-profile job as former president Donald Trump’s White House press secretary into her own political career as Arkansas’ first female governor, accused President Biden of caring more about “woke fantasies” than Americans’ economic concerns and called him “unfit to serve” in her response to his State of the Union address Tuesday night.

Sanders sought to contrast herself, the youngest governor in the nation, with Biden, an octogenarian. Several times she called Biden and the Democrats “crazy” as she painted a grim version of the country under their policies, asserting that Americans’ freedoms were at stake.

“I’ll be the first to admit President Biden and I don’t have a lot in common. I’m for freedom. He’s for government control,” Sanders said. “At 40, I’m the youngest governor in the country, and at 80 he’s the oldest president in American history. I’m the first woman to lead my state, and he’s the first man to surrender his presidency to a woke mob that can’t even tell you what a woman is.”

The selection of Sanders as the face of the Republican Party for what is one of the most significant political events of the year signals the GOP’s continued embrace of Trump. For nearly two years, Sanders was Trump’s chief spokesperson, sparring with reporters over his policies and rhetoric. She also acknowledged having provided false information in his defense.

The politician selected to give the partisan rebuttal to the State of the Union is seen as a rising star in the party. In choosing Sanders, Republicans indicated that her brand of confrontational cultural conservatism represents the future of their party — and that deep ties to Trump are not viewed as a detriment even as the GOP has signaled a desire to move past him.

“In the radical left’s America, Washington taxes you and lights your hard-earned money on fire, but you get crushed with high gas prices, empty grocery shelves, and our children are taught to hate one another on account of their race, but not to love one another or our great country,” Sanders said. “Whether Joe Biden believes this madness or is simply too weak to resist it, his administration has been completely hijacked by the radical left. The dividing line in America is no longer between right or left. The choice is between normal or crazy.

“And while you reap the consequences of their failures, the Biden administration seems more interested in woke fantasies than the hard reality Americans face every day. Most Americans simply want to live their lives in freedom and peace, but we are under attack in a left-wing culture war we didn’t start and never wanted to fight,” she added.

As the new governor of a deeply red state that Trump won in 2020 with 62 percent of the vote, Sanders fired up culture wars on her first day by signing executive orders to ban the term “Latinx” from state documents and to forbid the teaching of critical race theory in schools, though there’s no evidence that the academic discipline was being taught in Arkansas public schools.

“Today I will also sign an executive order preventing the political indoctrination of Arkansas’ schoolchildren,” Sanders, a mother of three young children, said during her inauguration speech. “As long as I am governor, our schools will focus on the skills our children need to get ahead in the modern world — not brainwashing our children with a left-wing political agenda.”

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) reflected on her time at Little Rock Central High School in her response to the State of the Union address on Feb. 7. (Video: The Washington Post)

Sanders has followed in the footsteps of her father, Mike Huckabee, a staunch conservative long before the Trump era. When she announced her run for governor, she immediately rose to front-runner status on her family name and her ties to Trump.

Trump publicly backed Sanders’s run for governor, and she has remained an unapologetic ally of the former president, although she never fully embraced his baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him. During the Republican gubernatorial primary last year, Sanders suggested, without evidence, that there was fraud, but did not go so far as to say it cost Trump the election.

“We know there is fraud in every election. How far and wide it went, I don’t think that will be something that will be ever determined,” she told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “I do think that the country would be infinitely better off if Donald Trump was the president right now, and I think anything we can to do as we go into the next election cycle to strengthen our election process and provide greater election integrity is something we should be striving for.”

In her remarks, Sanders mentioned her work in the Trump administration but did not mention her former boss by name. She then said “a new generation of Republican leaders are stepping up,” which could be viewed as her suggesting it’s time for the party to move beyond Trump.

GOP congressional leaders framed Sanders’s address as an opportunity to hear from a new generation, juxtaposing the millennial with the current president, who is twice her age.

“While President Biden keeps repeating old mistakes and failing Americans, a rising generation of Republican Governors are fighting for families, advancing new solutions, and winning. Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders is the youngest Governor in the nation and a powerful advocate for the popular, commonsense conservative principles that will put our country back on a better course,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a statement last week.

In 2021, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina delivered the response to Biden, and before that Nikki Haley, then governor of South Carolina, gave the GOP rebuttal after President Barack Obama’s last State of the Union address in 2016. Both Scott and Haley have signaled interest in running for president in 2024 against 76-year-old Trump, who has already declared himself a candidate.

More on the 2023 State of the Union address

The speech: President Biden used his 2023 State of the Union address to emphasize popular ideas from job creation to health care, pitching himself as a friend of ordinary Americans. Here are a few takeaways and a fact check of Biden’s speech.

A combative night: Midway through the State of the Union address, the room turned feisty as some Republican lawmakers began booing Biden. In one of the most disruptive moments of the night, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene yelled toward Biden: “Liar!” There was also a harsh exchange between Mitt Romney and Rep. George Santos. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy excused the hecklers, saying they were “passionate.”

The Republican response: In her rebuttal to the State of the Union address, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders accused Biden of caring more about “woke fantasies” than Americans’ economic concerns and called him “unfit to serve."