President Biden was well into his State of the Union address when he noted that 25 percent of the nation’s debt had accumulated under former president Donald Trump, a remark that immediately elicited angry catcalls from Republicans in the chamber. “They’re the facts — check it out,” Biden said, as the grumbling swelled into a cacophony. “Check it out!”
It was just one moment in the loud bickering that at times engulfed Biden’s address Tuesday night, a back-and-forth that framed what is becoming a notable dynamic as the 2024 campaign heats up: Biden and the raucous House Republicans are in many ways running against each other, each seeing the other as a useful foil to be called out and ridiculed at every turn.
Biden, with no presumptive Republican opponent likely to emerge for months, appears happy to run against the outspoken House Republican conference, which he portrays as controlled by extremist figures. And the newly powerful Republican lawmakers seem to relish depicting Biden as an elderly president who is out of his depth.
Biden and a set of vocal House Republicans seemed satisfied with the verbal brawling. White House officials let it be known that the exchanges prompted applause and high-fives among Biden aides, some of whom had gathered around televisions in the office of White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. And Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) — who during the speech cupped her hands around her mouth and screamed “Liar!” — recorded a video just minutes after leaving the chamber bragging about her outburst.
Biden continued the back-and-forth Wednesday at a stop in Wisconsin. “Marjorie Taylor Greene and others stood up and said, ‘Liar, liar,’” Biden recounted, happy to elevate the unorthodox congresswoman as the face of the GOP. “Reminds me of, ‘Liar, liar, house on fire.’”
The moment also reflected two very different messages. Biden, who is widely expected to be his party’s 2024 presidential nominee, spent much of his speech, and his appearance at a union hall Wednesday, making appeals to blue-collar voters and advocating ideas like fixing bridges and lowering drug costs. Republicans, ahead of what is shaping up as a lively 2024 primary, have no clear standard-bearer, and focused on blasting Biden and playing up cultural issues.
That included by Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who — delivering the official Republican response to the State of the Union — complained that “normal” Americans were under pitiless assault from the “crazy” left.
“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,” Huckabee said. “Every day, we are told that we must partake in their rituals, salute their flags and worship their false idols.”
Democrats are hoping that Biden’s talk of roads and bridges will play well against the Republicans’ embrace of fire and brimstone.
“Biden gave a speech for a general-market audience, and Huckabee Sanders gave a response for the Fox News audience,” said Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster at Hart Research. “Biden was upbeat and a happy warrior, and Huckabee Sanders was angry and harsh. I think on that score voters much prefer the Biden model.”
He added, “Republicans are going to be fighting with each other in a battle for the base. They are going to continue to be dark and extreme, while Biden is able to speak to the broad electorate.”
Republicans, however, argue that many Americans, not just die-hard Republicans, are upset by such Democratic policies as coronavirus-driven school closures, embrace of transgender rights, and education about systemic racism — policies they often combine under the loosely defined term “woke.” The Biden administration, Sanders contended, “has been completely hijacked by the radical left.”
The shouting Tuesday also reflected how little control House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) has over his conference. Before the address, he instructed members to behave courteously, saying all eyes would be on them. His leadership team told House Republicans to remember that cameras would be on and hot microphones nearby.
And he said he wanted no “childish games,” adding that he would not be ripping up Biden’s speech as his predecessor, former speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), did after Trump’s speech in 2020 (she later called it a “manifesto of mistruths”).
McCarthy wore a determined, expressionless face most of the night, at times shaking his head in disagreement or offering a sly smile of modest approval. But he notably shushed his members at one point, apparently worried that their reactions were getting out of hand.
Rep. Andrew Ogles (R-Tenn.) yelled “It’s your fault!” when Biden mentioned his concern about deaths from fentanyl overdoses. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) shook her head in disgust as Biden called for an assault weapons ban. Greene had several outbursts, and she wanted to enter the chamber with a white balloon to dramatize her complaint that Biden had waited too long to shoot down an alleged Chinese spy balloon.
On Wednesday, though, McCarthy excused the Republican hecklers, saying they were “passionate.” But he acknowledged that the smarter play would have been not to “take the bait” from Biden.
“Fox & Friends” co-host Steve Doocy noted that polling showed that independent voters were turned off by the heckling and asked McCarthy what had happened. “Well, the president was trying to goad the members, and the members are passionate about it,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy also accused Biden of saying “something he knew was not true” and reiterated that House Republicans are not seeking to cut Social Security or Medicare. In his Wednesday appearance, Biden cited comments by Sens. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) that did urge rethinking entitlements, adding, “They sure didn’t like me calling them on it.”
Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who has been close with McCarthy and was in the chamber Tuesday, said Biden clearly provoked Republicans by raising the specter of sunsetting Social Security and Medicare. Republican leaders in both the House and Senate have ruled that out, he noted, with McCarthy giving a speech just the day before ruling out any entitlement changes.
“Don’t turn the State of the Union into a high school musical — and that is really what it felt like, and that is not good for anyone,” Luntz said. “It is yet another example for children to misbehave and for teenagers to cancel those they disagree with and for adults to be rude to one another.”
Many Republican leaders, disappointed with the results of the November midterms, have bemoaned their party’s nomination of fiery candidates who played to the GOP base but in the end attracted little support beyond it. Some within the party fear a similar effect in the 2024 presidential primary if their candidates are overly focused on appeasing the anger and emotions of Republican loyalists.
“The candidates that Donald Trump supported in contested primaries did badly for a reason: They were Trumpian, they weren’t American,” Luntz said. “Donald Trump is still the most popular figure among Republicans, and he will continue to be. But he is not the most popular figure among Americans. And it is something that Republicans have to come to terms with.”
Tuesday night’s reaction by Republicans recalled an episode 14 years ago, when Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) yelled “You lie!” during a speech on health care by President Barack Obama to a joint meeting of Congress.
Wilson, however, promptly apologized, saying, “While I disagree with the president’s statement, my comments were inappropriate and regrettable. I extend sincere apologies to the president for this lack of civility.”
There were no such apologies on Wednesday. While McCarthy described his members as “passionate,” Ogles defended his outburst as a “visceral response.”
Democrats said they were buoyed by Biden’s performance. “Joe Biden was so deft. He let them walk into his trap. He rope-a-doped them,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York said on MSNBC.
Vice President Harris, during a television interview Wednesday morning, lamented the “theatrical” outbursts from Republican lawmakers and the “gamesmanship” on display in the House chamber.
“I think that there sadly tends to be a theatrical element to that evening as time has gone on, but I think the president was in command and he was focused on the American people as opposed to necessarily the gamesmanship that was being played in the room,” Harris said on “CBS Mornings.”
Harris also said she intends to be on the ticket with Biden in 2024 if he seeks reelection, as expected. “He intends to run,” she said. “And if he does, I’ll be running with him.”
It is not the first time a Democratic president has used an outspoken, newly powerful group of House Republicans as a foil. Both Bill Clinton and Obama saw their party lose the House two years after they took office, as Biden now has. Both then ran against the GOP-led House as part of their reelection effort.
Biden’s claims about the Republican threat to Medicare and Social Security are largely based on a plan issued last year by Sen. Scott that urged congressional votes every five years on all government programs, on the theory that Congress can reauthorize the worthwhile ones and let the others die. Scott did not mention Social Security or Medicare in his plan, but the proposal did not exclude them.
On Wednesday, Scott, who is seeking reelection in 2024, stood by his plan, tweeting, “Last night, @JoeBiden rambled for a while, but it seems he forgot to share the facts: In my plan, I suggested the following: All federal legislation sunsets in 5 yrs. If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again.”
Scott last year presided over his party’s Senate campaign arm during disappointing midterms for Republicans. After the elections, Scott mounted an unsuccessful challenge to Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.) for the post of Senate Republican leader.
Biden is scheduled to visit Scott’s home state Thursday, stopping in Tampa to talk about Social Security and Medicare. Scott is planning to run an ad in the Tampa area calling for Biden’s resignation.
John Wagner contributed to this report.