WASHINGTON ― President Joe Biden on Tuesday told Congress that the state of the union is strong and getting even stronger in his third annual prime-time address from the House chamber since taking office and in the lead-up to a likely announcement that he will run for reelection.
“We are the only country that has emerged from every crisis stronger than when we got into it,” Biden said. “Look folks, that’s what we are doing again.”
Biden, whose approval numbers have rebounded significantly since last summer when more American disapproved of him than approved by a 20-point margin, took to the dais to boast of an economy that has recovered the millions of jobs it lost during the COVID-19 pandemic and which could gain millions more in the coming years thanks to the $2 trillion in high-tech, green energy and infrastructure investments he has pushed through in his two years in office.
Biden’s speech was the first with a new Republican majority in the House, and he made a point of congratulating speaker Kevin McCarthy on his new role, turning to shake his hand and telling him he looked forward to working him.
He joked about how, as president for all Americans, he would support investments in roads, bridges and energy projects in the districts of those Republicans who voted against his plans, too. “We’ll fund your projects. And I’ll see you at the ground-breaking,” he said.
At other times, though, he paused as Republicans ― Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, chief among them ― yelled insults at him. When he accused some Republicans of wanting to cut Social Security and Medicare, dozens of Republicans claimed it was not true, even though Florida Sen. Rick Scott and others have publicly supported doing so.
That exchange led him to ad-lib a whole new section thanking Republicans for coming to the consensus that cuts to those programs were no longer on the table. “We have unanimity!”
As expected, Biden ticked off the accomplishments of his first two years, including the biggest investments to date to deal with climate change. “Let’s face reality. The climate crisis doesn’t care if you’re a red or blue state. It is an existential threat,” he said.
He pushed proposals to increase taxes on stock buybacks, to stop businesses from charging “junk fees” for basic services, and to make it easier to form unions.
Pointing to the parents of a Black man in Memphis killed by police officers following a traffic stop, he urged Congress to pass police reform. Telling the story of a 4-year-old cancer survivor whose parents also sat in the gallery, he pushed for more funding for his “Cancer Moonshot” program.
He called the United States and its NATO allies’ response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “a test for the ages,” and vowed to stand with Ukraine “as long as it takes.”
He referred to a Chinese espionage balloon that crossed the country last week before being shot down by an Air Force fighter plane off the South Carolina coast only in passing. “I am committed to work with China where it can advance American interests and benefit the world,” Biden said. “But make no mistake: As we made clear last week, if China’s threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did.”
Biden, as he has since taking office, again referenced former President Donald Trump’s Jan. 6, 2021, coup attempt as a test of American democracy, and reminded the country that the threat was not over. He pointed to former Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul Pelosi, who was attacked in their home by a man who had bought into Trump’s election lies.
“Such a heinous act never should have happened,” he said. “We must all speak out. There is no place for political violence in America. In America, we must protect the right to vote, not suppress that fundamental right. We honor the results of our elections, not subvert the will of the people. We must uphold the rule of the law and restore trust in our institutions of democracy.”
Biden, who turned 80 in November, has said for months that he intends to run for a second term but did not feel compelled to make a firm decision until this year.
Last spring and summer, following a chaotic withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan and amid spiking inflation rates, Biden’s approval numbers dipped into the mid-30s. But after inflation began easing, the Supreme Court overturned the national right to abortion and coup-attempting former President Donald Trump inserted himself into the national conversation, Biden enjoyed the best midterm election performance of any president in decades.
Republicans only barely won back the House, rather than picking up 40 or 50 seats, as they had expected, and lost a seat in the Senate ― results that Biden and his staff attribute to his leadership.
“He has a record over the last two years that shows that he has delivered,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said.
Like presidents have done historically, Biden has been and continues to take credit for improvements in the economy that had little to do with his policies.
Entering office just as the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic was passing, Biden took over at a moment when both the economy and the government’s financial picture realistically had nowhere to go but up. Millions of people returned to work, and the federal government phased out the welfare payments to keep businesses and their employees from going bankrupt while much of the economy had shut down.
Today, some 12 million more Americans are employed than on the day of his inauguration, while the federal deficit has gone down $1.7 trillion.
However, the flip side of taking credit for the economy’s successes is being blamed for its problems.
Most Americans, polling shows, remain worried about the economy, despite record-low unemployment, largely because of still-high inflation. Many economists believe that resulted partially because Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year ago drove up oil prices and partially because of all the cash the government put in Americans’ pockets to ward off a depression during the pandemic.
Biden, of course, did not encourage Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s invasion, and of the $5.7 trillion the government spent in COVID response and relief payments starting in March 2020, a full 67% took place prior to his administration.
Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said Americans’ unhappiness about the state of things is understandable. “It’s not because people can’t find jobs, it’s because the money they are paid isn’t going far enough to make ends meet or to get ahead,” he said. “Treading economically in place is not good enough for most Americans.”
David Axelrod, the Democratic consultant who helped Barack Obama win two presidential terms, agreed that the cost of living affected views but also wondered how much unease the pandemic left behind. “I believe there is lingering anxiety from a pandemic that has had reverberations in the way we work and how workplaces are structured that may add to the stew of discontent,” he said.
Biden and his staff point out that inflation is not confined to the United States and that we are better off than most others. “If you go around the world, if you talk to heads of state, see heads of state, CEOs, other leaders ― they will tell you, you know, that the United States really is better positioned than almost any other country,” said Brian Deese, director of Biden’s National Economic Council.
Likely more important for Biden’s success going forward are concrete results from three key pieces of legislation he pushed through Congress since taking office: a $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan, the $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act to bring silicon microprocessor research and manufacturing back to the United States and, most recently, the $485 billion “Inflation Reduction Act,” a large portion of which promotes alternative energy development.
“This is a year of action and investment and implementation where, across those areas,” Deese said, “you’re going to see this unfold in more and more ways.”