Price on Politics: President Biden’s second State of the Union Address

Price Wilborn, Commentary Editor

President Joe Biden gave his second State of the Union Address to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 7. The third of Biden’s speeches in front of both houses of Congress, this one was by far the strongest.

2022 saw the lowest of Biden’s approval ratings, but the latter half of the year saw major legislative accomplishments and approval ratings that have not been lower than their lowest point since July. Last summer saw the passage of major pieces of Biden’s legislative agenda, such as the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the CHIPS and Science Act and the PACT Act.

These followed the passing of key bills like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law earlier in the year and preceded the November Midterm Elections, where Biden and the Democrats did remarkably well.

Each of these things put the president in a strong position going into the State of the Union Address. Questions have been flying since he took office as to whether the president would run for a second term in 2024. His age – he would be weeks away from turning 82 in November 2024 – and Democrats’ hesitancy to see a second term have led to months of speculation.

The State of the Union Address seemed to give answers to these questions. No less than 12 times President Biden challenged Congress and America to “finish the job.” This will no doubt be a slogan for Biden and the Democrats going into 2024.

Biden began the speech by congratulating new Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, saying that “I look forward to working together.” Just a few seconds later, Biden congratulated Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell on making history recently, becoming the longest serving Senate leader in history.

Biden’s rhetoric throughout the speech highlighting the administration’s successful efforts to reach across the aisle were no doubt an effort to show Americans that he was willing to work with Republicans wherever possible. In order to win over Democrats and moderate Republicans, bipartisanship is key.

For the Democrats unsure of a Biden 2024 bid, he must show that he is fighting for their core ideals and values just as much as any other member of the party. For moderate Republicans, Biden must show that he is not as far left as Democrats like Bernie Sanders and that he can present a solid alternative to farther right Republicans like Donald Trump and Ron Desantis.

Pew Research Center research shows that strengthening the economy is the highest concern of American voters. As a preface to his 2024 reelection campaign, Biden emphasized economic development and creating jobs throughout the speech. He referenced low unemployment rates and the creation of “a record 12 million jobs.” He referenced bringing manufacturing jobs back to the United States, saying “for far too many decades, we imported products and exported jobs. Now, thanks to all we’ve done, we’re exporting American products and creating American jobs.”

Throughout the address, the president made note of many projects that are helping improve the nation’s infrastructure and create jobs, including the Brent Spence Bridge project, which will improve the flow of traffic over the Ohio River between Kentucky and Ohio.

During the speech, the president also announced “new standards to require all construction materials used in federal infrastructure projects to be made in America.” This means the federal government will only use “American-made lumber, glass, drywall, fiber-optic cables. And on my watch, American roads, American bridges, and American highways will be made with American products.”

This pledge not only renews the administration’s commitment to update American infrastructure across the country but also will create new jobs and boost the economy even more.

This is not to say that Biden’s speech was well-received by everyone in the audience. Almost halfway through the speech, President Biden said that “some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset” in reference to GOP desires to use the two programs as leverage in the upcoming debt limit negotiations. This drew jeers from the GOP side of the chamber, with Representative Marjorie Taylor Green of Georgia calling the president a liar in the back row.

What Biden did after this, however, was politically masterful. Upon hearing the jeers from the crowd, Biden asked, “so folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare are off the books now, right? Not to be touched?” These comments received a standing ovation from most of the chamber, which signaled Republican support for the idea and hindering the party’s ability to use the programs as negotiation leverage.

Political commentators commented on all aspects of this exchange between the president and Congressional Republicans, Saying that “Biden flexed his dexterity at the State of the Union” or calling the GOP heckling a “gift.” This not only allowed Biden to exercise his political chops on national television, but also helped dampen arguments that he is mentally unfit for office. The flexibility and quick thinking showed the nation why Biden is a great leader.

Towards the end of the speech, Biden reiterated his commitment to fighting the fentanyl crisis in the United States. Upon mentioning fentanyl, Republicans again heckled the president, saying that the ongoing crisis was his fault. The president, however, renewed his commitment to stooping fentanyl at the border by increasing funding for more resources available to those officials that needed it.

In 2021, 2,250 Kentuckians died due to drug overdose. This was a 14.5% increase over the year before. Nationally, over 107,000 Americans died from overdoses. According to the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy’s 2021 Overdose Fatality Report, 70% of overdose deaths nationally were due to fentanyl use. There were over 14,000 pounds of fentanyl seized at the border during 2022, and Republicans see this as a failure of the Biden-Harris administration overturning Trump-era border policies.

Following Biden’s speech, newly-inaugurated Governor of Arkansas and former Trump White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders delivered the Republican response. Throughout the almost 20 minute speech, Sanders presented a stark contrast to Biden’s America – one where Democrats and the left are trying to rule America through fear and restricting freedom.

Sanders stated that “the dividing line in America is no longer between right or left. The choice is between normal or crazy.” Sanders presented a dark America that can only be saved by right wing conservative values, but this is simply not the case.

Yes, Democrats can do things better, and yes, Republicans do get some things right. Yes, America is deeply divided, as the sharp partisan divides in Congress show. These sharp divides, however, show that this is no time for Republicans to spew hate and fear as far and wide as they can in order to gain back control of Congress and the White House in 2024. Reaching across the aisle is more important than ever, and it is Biden and the Democrats that seem to be the most open to this collaboration.

Themes of bipartisanship, hope and optimism permeated Biden’s address, in sharp contrast to the GOP response. Biden presented an America that is strong and getting stronger. From raising the pay for public school teachers to lowering taxes for the middle class to passing comprehensive police reform, Biden laid out an agenda that is exactly what America needs right now – and exactly what the president and Democrats need going into 2024.

By the end of the president’s address, I truly believed that “because the soul of this nation is strong, because the backbone of this nation is strong, because the people of this nation are strong, the State of the Union is strong.”

Commentary Editor Price Wilborn can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @pricewilborn.

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