Biden’s State of the Union address: key takeaways
In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Joe Biden presented a bullish picture of the achievements of his administration and Democrats in Congress since he entered the White House in 2021.
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The US president also took the battle to Republicans on some issues in what was a widely praised performance as the 2024 race for the White House starts to appear on the horizon.
Here are some key takeaways from the speech.
On China, the ‘strongest position in decades’
Biden spoke in a Capitol still reverberating with Republican attempts to capitalise on the affair of the Chinese spy balloon, which was shot down off the Carolinas last Saturday after traversing the country. Rightwingers including the extremist Marjorie Taylor Greene, who paraded her own balloon through the halls before the speech, say Biden was too slow to take action.
Biden rejected that, saying: “Today, we’re in the strongest position in decades to compete with China or anyone else in the world. I am committed to work with China where it can advance American interests and benefit the world. But make no mistake: as we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did.”
On threats to social security and Medicare
Discussing the looming fight, and possible global crisis, over a US default if the debt ceiling is not raised, and with his opponent in that fight, Kevin McCarthy, sitting behind him, Biden took aim at Republicans who want to cut social security and Medicare as part of (supposedly) balancing the federal budget.
He said: “Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans want Medicare and social security to sunset every five years. That means if Congress doesn’t vote to keep them, those programs will go away.”
Among Republican boos and jeers, Greene was seen and heard to shout: “Liar!”
But Biden, engaging almost in call and response, had got Republicans on their feet denying his claim. Which was, it seems, what he wanted.
“We’ve got unanimity,” the president said. “Apparently it’s not going to be a problem.”
Expect such footage to resurface in the months before the debt ceiling deadline.
On Tyre Nichols and police violence
With Republicans holding the House, the prospects for meaningful policing reform are grim. Biden issued an appeal anyway, citing the horrific case of Tyre Nichols, the Black man beaten to death by officers in Memphis, Tennessee, and introducing Nichols’s parents, who were given a standing ovation.
“Imagine if you lost a child at the hands of the law,” Biden said, also asking the silent chamber to imagine having to give “the talk” which Black and brown parents must give children about how to interact with police to protect themselves.
“I know most cops are good, decent people,” Biden said. “They risk their lives every time they put on that shield. But what happened to Tyre in Memphis happens too often. We have to do better.”
On guns, an appeal for an assault weapons ban
Prospects of gun reform are also grim. But Biden repeated his familiar call to ban assault weapons, mentioning the recent Monterey Park shooting in California. He introduced a survivor, Brandon Tsay, who disarmed the gunman who killed 11 people. Tsay received a standing ovation.
“Ban assault weapons once and for all,” Biden said. “We did it before. I led the fight to ban them in 1994 [as a senator from Delaware]. In the 10 years the ban was law, mass shootings went down. After Republicans let it expire, mass shootings tripled. Let’s finish the job and ban assault weapons again.”
On abortion, the need to codify ‘Roe’
“Congress must restore the right the supreme court took away last year and codify Roe v Wade to protect every woman’s constitutional right to choose,” Biden said, adding: “Make no mistake: if Congress passes a national abortion ban, I will veto it.”
Congress is highly unlikely to do that, not least because the court sent abortion rights back to the states. Republicans know the issue is toxic for them at the ballot box and anyway, Democrats hold the Senate. But the ballot box was where Biden was really aiming: the assault on abortion rights is an issue Democrats will ride into 2024.
On border matters, more clashes
Unsurprisingly, Republicans in the House chamber chanted “secure the border” when Biden spoke about immigration – including a push for more resources for border protection officers.
McCarthy was seen to shush the hecklers – if not particularly demonstratively. Later, when Biden spoke about the need to secure America’s borders against an influx of the opioid fentanyl, and introduced the parents of a woman killed by the drug, at least one Republican shouted: “It’s your fault!”
Nearly a year after Russia invaded its neighbour, Biden saluted Ukraine and the US effort to support and arm Kyiv, a target of Republican criticism.
“Together,” he said, “we did what America always does at our best. We led. We united Nato and built a global coalition. We stood against [Vladimir] Putin’s aggression. We stood with the Ukrainian people.”
Addressing the Ukrainian ambassador, Biden said: “We’re going to stand with you as long as it takes.”
On rightwing threats to democracy
Biden made reference to the grave threats of the last few years, if not mentioning their chief source, Donald Trump, by name. He made a point by acknowledging Paul Pelosi, the husband of the former speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was attacked by an extremist in his San Francisco home last year.
“For the last few years our democracy has been threatened, attacked and put at risk. … Here tonight in this chamber is the man who bears the scars of that brutal attack but is as tough and strong and as resilient as they get. My friend, Paul Pelosi. But such a heinous act never should have happened.”
Biden added: “There’s no place for political violence in America. We have to protect the right to vote, not suppress that fundamental right, respect results of our elections not subvert the will of people. We have to restore trust in our institutions of democracy.”