Speaking before Congress for the first time after Republicans captured the House majority, President Joe Biden celebrated how far the nation’s economy has come since high inflation peaked last summer and called on congressional Republicans to work with him on immigration, guns, abortion, and other issues.
Biden spent much of his State of the Union address touting a unity agenda focused on areas where he believes Democrats and Republicans can find common ground. “The people sent us a clear message,” Biden said, with new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy standing behind him. “Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict, gets us nowhere.”
The President’s speech before a politically divided Congress comes as the nation grapples with complex domestic and international issues, including economic instability, a standoff over raising the debt limit, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, and escalating tensions with China. Biden offered a reassuring assessment of the nation’s current state as it emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic with its lowest unemployment rate since 1969. The economy created 12.1 million jobs between January 2021, when Biden took office, and this January—to which Biden remarked that more jobs were created in two years than under any previous President during a four-year term.
But he acknowledged persistent high prices and continued anxiety about the future, and he referenced the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol and threats to the democratic process. “Two years ago, democracy faced its greatest threat since the Civil War,” Biden said. “And today, our democracy remains unbound and unbroken.”
Biden’s speech Tuesday night is a dress rehearsal for his likely reelection campaign, when the President will once again try to convince American voters that his experienced leadership and willingness to work across the aisle makes him the right leader in polarizing times. Biden is hoping to tout his success over the last two years at getting some Republicans to sign on to major investments in infrastructure, boosting tech manufacturing in the U.S., and a modest gun safety bill.
Biden’s address comes at a time when his approval rating is hovering around 42%, among the lowest average second-year approval ratings of any modern President (only his predecessor, President Donald Trump, had a lower second-year average rating). One persistent drag on Biden’s approval has been the economy, which is still reeling from high inflation. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Sunday found that four in 10 Americans say they are financially worse off since Biden took office. That same poll found that 62% of Americans would be disappointed or angry if Biden won a second term.
These are the key moments from Biden’s 2023 State of the Union speech.
A riled-up audience
Biden didn’t exactly invite audience participation, but lawmakers couldn’t be stopped. Along with whoops and cheers from Democrats, Republicans frequently interrupted the President. One of the most heated moments came when Biden accused the GOP of wanting to slash Social Security and Medicare. Many Republicans in the chamber booed loudly in response, shouting “No!” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, one of the most frequent hecklers of the night, yelled out, “Liar!”
Biden got in a quick back-and-forth with some of his objectors. “Let me tell you, I enjoy conversion,” the President said, earning some laughter from the crowd.
When Biden followed up with a comment about protecting Medicare, many Republicans stood and clapped to signal their support. One member yelled, “Bullshit!”
When Biden got to the section of his speech devoted to competition with China, Rep. Greene, who was sitting in the back of her chamber at times distracted by her phone, began speaking over him again. “China’s spying on us!” she cried before being shushed by her colleagues. She continued as Biden plowed on, but she was drowned out as he raised his voice and Democrats broke into more applause.
Tyre Nichols and police reform
Biden asked parents to “imagine if you lost that child at the hands of the law?” Biden pointed out that Black and brown families feel the potential danger of a police stop acutely. “Most of us in here have never had to have the talk, the talk, that Black and brown parents have to have with their children,” Biden told the House and Senate assembled before him.
Biden said that he knows most cops and their families are “good, decent, honorable people,” and they risk their lives when they put the shield on their uniforms, “but what happened to Tyre in Memphis happens too often.” Biden described actions he took to ban federal officers from using choke holds and no-knock warrants. Biden called on Congress to pass more police reforms into law. “When police departments violate the public trust they must be held accountable,” he said. Biden said that Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, told him that her son was “a beautiful soul and something good will come out of this.” What comes out of Nichols’ death, Biden said, is “up to all of us.”
“Let’s make the words of Tyre’s mom come true,” Biden continued. “Something good must come from this.”
Democracy and extremism
Biden devoted a significant portion of his speech to American democracy, which he said was “threatened and attacked” on Jan. 6, 2021 when a mob of Trump supporters stormed into the U.S. Capitol Building in an attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 presidential election. “Democracy must not be a partisan issue,” Biden said. “It’s an American issue.”
McCarthy did not clap when Biden referred to the Jan. 6 Capitol attack as “the greatest threat [to democracy] since the Civil War.” Many Republicans in the room continue to deny Biden won the election. More than 100 Republicans, including McCarthy, voted in January 2021 to reject the legitimate votes cast in Arizona and Pennsylvania that cemented Biden’s win.
“Every generation, Americans faced a moment where they have been called to protect our democracy, defend it, stand up for it,” Biden added. “And this is our moment.”
He urged Americans to speak out against political violence and extremism, and denounced the attack against Paul Pelosi, the husband of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, at their San Francisco home on Oct. 28 by a man searching for Nancy. “There’s no place for political violence in America,” Biden said. The attacker, Biden said, was “using the very same language insurrectionists used as they spoke in these halls and chanted on January 6th.” Biden called on the country’s political leaders condemn such violence. “Such a heinous act should have never happened. We must all speak out,” he said.
Biden touted strong job numbers and low unemployment. “We have created a record 12 million new jobs, more jobs created in two years than any President has ever created in four years,” the President said to applause from Democrats. He also emphasized six months in a row of the U.S. inflation rate going down.
Biden announced that his budget, to be released next month, will cut the nation’s deficit by $2 trillion. He argued that Republicans—namely former President Donald Trump, whom he referred to as “my predecessor”—are responsible for racking up nearly a quarter of the national debt. He said that Republicans raised the debt ceiling three times during Trump’s presidency “without preconditions or crisis” and asked Congress to follow suit.
Biden also called to raise taxes on the wealthy and extend more social aid, ideas that will likely be dead-on-arrival among Republicans. Specifically, Biden urged Congress to pass his proposal for a billionaire minimum tax. “No billionaire should pay a lower tax rate than a school teacher or a firefighter,” the President said to loud applause from one half of the chamber.
Prescription drug costs
Biden highlighted parts of the Inflation Reduction Act that lowered the cost of prescription drugs. Starting on Jan. 1, insulin for seniors on Medicare was capped at $35 per month—and Biden called for capping the price of insulin at $35 for everyone.
“With the Inflation Reduction Act that I signed into law, we’re taking on powerful interests to bring your health care costs down so you can sleep better at night,” Biden said. “Big Pharma has been unfairly charging people hundreds of dollars, making record profits. Not anymore.”
In the speech, Biden called on Congress to go further in lowering the cost of needed drugs like insulin, saying there are millions of other Americans who are not on Medicare who could benefit from the federal government requiring companies to limit what they charge for such medications. “Let’s cap the cost of insulin for everybody at $35,” Biden said. He looked over to the Republican side of the aisle and said, “Big Pharma is still going to do very well, I promise you all.” Biden said that if Republicans try to pass a law that raises the cost of prescription drugs, he would veto it. Plus, he argued, lowering the cost of prescription drugs for people on Medicare also reduces the federal deficit. “We’re finally giving Medicare the power to negotiate drug prices. Bringing down prescription drug costs doesn’t just save seniors money. It cuts the federal deficit by billions of dollars,” Biden said.
Biden condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “unfair and brutal war in Ukraine.” Early in the speech, Biden thanked Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova—who was seated near First Lady Jill Biden—to a loud applause from the chamber. “Ambassador, we are united in our support for your country,” Biden said. “We are going to stand with you as long as it takes. Our nation is working for more freedom, more dignity, and more peace, not just in Europe, but everywhere.”
Biden later attributed the disruption of international energy and food supply chains to the war in Ukraine.
With five Supreme Court Justices in the audience, Biden called on Congress to restore a nationwide right to abortion and codify Roe v. Wade after the Supreme Court overturned the landmark decision last summer that for 50 years had protected the right to terminate a pregnancy.
Biden vowed to veto any federal abortion ban that arrives on his desk. “The Vice President and I are doing everything we can to protect access to reproductive health care and safeguard patient privacy,” Biden said.
More than a dozen states have implemented strict restrictions on most abortion—including medication abortions—since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling.
Antitrust and big tech
Biden became the first President to utter the word “antitrust” in a State of the Union address since Jimmy Carter in 1979, calling on Congress to crack down on Big Tech’s monopoly power.
“Pass the bipartisan legislation to strengthen antitrust enforcement and prevent big online platforms from giving their own products an unfair advantage,” Biden told lawmakers, referring to the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA), a measure that advanced out of House and Senate committees last term but was stymied by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who never brought it up for a vote before the full chamber. “Capitalism without competition is not capitalism,” Biden added. “It’s extortion. It’s exploitation.”
At the same time, the President highlighted his Administration’s efforts to ramp up enforcement of American competition policy. Specifically, he highlighted the Federal Trade Commission’s recently proposed rule to ban non-compete clauses, drawing boos from some Republicans in the chamber.
“Thirty million workers had to sign non-compete agreements when they took a job,” he said. “So a cashier at a burger place can’t cross the street to take the same job at another burger place to make a couple bucks more. Not anymore. We’re banning those agreements so companies have to compete for workers and pay them what they’re worth.”
The fate of that ban, however, is far from certain. The FTC is currently undergoing a public comment period before the agency’s commissioners, led by anti-monopoly crusader Lina Khan, hold a vote on the final ruling, which is likely to be challenged in the courts.
Biden reiterated the U.S. government intends to let the COVID-19 public health emergency expire in May, a sign that public officials believe the country is moving out of the pandemic.
“While the virus is not gone, thanks to the resilience of the American people in the ingenuity of medicine, we have broken COVID’s grip on us,” Biden said.
An average of more than 500 people are still dying each day from COVID-19, though the virus is no longer upending everyday life to the extent that it did a year ago. The move to end the public health emergency is expected to have significant consequences for the healthcare system. Millions of Americans have received access to free COVID-19 tests, vaccines and treatments, some of which will no longer be free once the emergency is lifted.
Every year, members of Congress and the First Lady invite guests to the State of the Union who they wish to recognize, thank, or help bring attention to specific issues.
Among this year’s presidential guests sitting with First Lady Jill Biden in the House gallery are the parents of Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old Black man who was beaten to death by police officers in Memphis on Jan. 7; Brandon Tsay, the California man who disarmed a gunman in the Monterey Park shooting that killed 11 people on Jan. 22; Paul Pelosi, the husband of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was attacked on Oct. 28 in their San Francisco home by a man searching for his wife; Oksana Markarova, the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States; and Bono, the singer who has championed AIDS treatment.
Accompanying them in the First Lady’s box are cancer survivors, business owners, students, a young immigrant seeking legal status, a father who lost a child to a fentanyl overdose, a couple who advocated for legalizing same-sex marriage, a Holocaust survivor, an ironworker, a Navy spouse, and a woman who nearly died during pregnancy due to a delay in receiving treatment because of Texas’ abortion law.
—With reporting by Brian Bennett, Eric Cortellessa, and Mini Racker / Washington.
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