Pivot point: Joe Biden faced a different chapter of his presidency in his State of the Union
President Biden's combative State of the Union address Tuesday night signaled more than a new year.
It welcomed a different presidency.
After taking office amid political turmoil and a global pandemic, Biden's first two years in office were marked by passage of legislation as far-reaching as any since the New Deal, from a massive infrastructure bill to the biggest investment in climate legislation in history.
But during his second two years in office, even the most basic act of governing – paying debts already incurred – seems guaranteed to involve cliffhanger negotiations with the Republicans who have taken control of the House.
Ahead in Chapter Two: less legislation and more investigation by Congress. More defense and less offense by the White House. And an expected reelection bid that starts with Biden holding a dismal approval rating and little public confidence in his ability to lead.
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"To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can't work together in this new Congress," Biden said near the top of a speech that stretched well past an hour. "We've been sent here to finish the job," a phrase he would repeat 12 times.
While there was unified applause on some issues, though, Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy, seated just behind Biden, could be seen shaking his head in disagreement at others. At times, some Republican members heckled and booed the president in the sort of vocal protests more common at prime minister's question time in the British Parliament than in the House chamber for a presidential speech draped with tradition.
The annual address to lawmakers, Supreme Court justices, foreign ambassadors, Cabinet secretaries, military generals and invited guests – and a nationwide television audience – reflected the changed political landscape and Biden's new challenges. So did the runup to the speech and the administration's travel blitz afterward, not to mention a modest overhaul of the White House staff and a toughening of his rhetoric.
What's a president to do?
Brag a little. Maybe a lot.
In the speech, Biden ticked off good economic news on his watch, including the lowest unemployment rate in a half-century and some recent easing of inflation. He touted the major laws he has signed and the impact he said they have had.
Americans aren't persuaded. More than six in 10 said Biden hasn't accomplished much during his presidency, according to an ABC/Washington Post Poll released this week. In the survey, even Democrats by nearly 2-1 said they would prefer someone else as their nominee in 2024.
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The finding "undermines Biden's central argument for renomination," Julian Castro, secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration, posted on Twitter Monday, saying in public what some other Democrats have said privately. "If he's faring this poorly after a string of wins, that should be worrisome."
Biden's job approval rating in the Gallup Poll stands at 41%, lower than any other modern president at this point in his term except Ronald Reagan, whose popularity in early 1983 had been dragged down to 37% by a recession. Donald Trump's rating in early 2019 was a tick higher, at 43%.
That's one reason the White House has stepped up efforts to make the case that the administration has scored significant successes that will improve Americans' daily lives. Among other things, Biden's team is spotlighting local projects funded by the infrastructure bill.
"To my Republican friends who voted against it but still ask to fund projects in their districts, don't worry," Biden said in his speech said to scattered laughter. "We'll fund these projects. And I'll see you at the ground-breaking."
On Wednesday he is set to go back on the road, to Wisconsin for an event focused on encouraging statistics on jobs. Vice President Kamala Harris is being dispatched to Georgia to discuss investments in green energy. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is traveling to Louisiana, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to Tennessee, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to North Carolina, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm to Nevada, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to Nebraska.
Not a coincidence: Most of those destinations are likely targets in the 2024 election.
More: A look at economy's strengths, weaknesses as Biden sets to boast of record job growth in State of Union
Paint the opposition as extreme.
Biden set a bipartisan tone at the start of his remarks, congratulating Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy on his election and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell on becoming the longest serving Senate leader in history.
If he offered cooperation, he was also braced for combat.
In the speech, he didn't mention the flood of investigations House Republicans have promised to pursue into him, his administration and his family. They include probes into the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, the rise in illegal immigration across the southern border, the business dealings of Biden's son Hunter, and more.
But the White House has already hired new lawyers and communications aides to handle them, and they won't have long to wait.
The House Oversight and Accountability Committee has scheduled a hearing Wednesday into how Twitter blocked tweets about Hunter Biden's laptop. House Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, last Friday subpoenaed the FBI and Education Department for documents about dealing with parents' protests at school board meetings.
For his part, Biden warned that Social Security and Medicare – programs so popular they are all but sacrosanct – could be at risk if House Republicans follow through on vows to demand deep spending cuts as part of a deal to raise the debt ceiling.
"Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset every five years," Biden said. "Other Republicans say if we don't cut Social Security and Medicare, they'll let America default on its debt for the first time in our history."
That drew loud protests from some Republicans. "Liar," Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene shouted from the back of the chamber.
"Let me tell you, I enjoy conversion," Biden ad-libbed. Given their response, he said, "Apparently, it's not going to be a problem."
Don't stop thinking about tomorrow.
Perhaps the most poignant moment of the speech came when Biden introduced the parents of Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old Black man who died after being brutally beaten by police officers in Memphis.
But Democrats were unable to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act even when they controlled Congress. A divided Congress is even less likely to enact it.
The same is true with other proposals Biden reiterated. He called on lawmakers to expand the $35 price cap on insulin to everyone, not just those on Medicare. To impose a minimum tax on billionaires. To restore the child tax credit. To ban assault-style weapons. To reform the immigration system.
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Whatever their odds of passage in this Congress, Biden saw the need to focus as much on the future as he did on the past.
"Biden has a long list of accomplishments. But when the mood of the country is sour, too much triumphalism will fall flat," David Axelrod, a senior strategist in the Obama White House, said before the speech. "Pitching your major initiatives – the ones you've enacted and the ones you propose – as substantial building blocks toward a better future is a wiser path. And communicating that vision is particularly important for an 80-year-old president contemplating reelection."
After all, he might be in a better position to deliver on them if there turns out to be a Chapter Three to his presidency.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden's State of the Union and the changed world he faces