Feb 8, 2023
Biden Baits Republicans With Unity Pleas That Provoke Catcalls
(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden used his State of the Union address Tuesday evening to lay a trap, and House Republicans couldn’t help but walk into it.
Biden intended his speech to be a relatively staid affair. His appeal to bipartisanship would provide an implicit contrast to Republicans he’s painted as consumed by the party’s fringe ahead of high-stakes talks over the debt limit and a bitter reelection campaign.
Instead the fringe came straight to Biden. The night is destined to be remembered for the moment that Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, a conspiracy theory enthusiast, began jeering Biden from the back row over his claim that some Republicans supported sunsetting Medicare and Social Security.
“Liar!” she shouted repeatedly, a pointed finger emerging from her oversized, white fur-lined coat.
But Biden parlayed the incident into a moment of levity, grinning as he declared he had “got unanimity!”
“So folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right?” Biden said.
Republicans continued interrupting him, including when Biden made an overture to GOP lawmakers to address immigration issues together. He also called to restore abortion rights struck down by the Supreme Court. Democrats credit this for their better-than-expected performance in the midterm elections.
At another point, a heckler from the Republican side of the chamber yelled at Biden that the nation’s fentanyl deaths were his fault. Later, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy — who warned his members earlier in the day to portray themselves professionally — appeared to shake his head and shush members who were shouting in the chamber.
In another memorable moment, Senator Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, admonished embattled GOP freshman Representative George Santos, who lied about key elements about his biography and lingered near the aisle before the president entered.
“I didn’t expect he’d be standing there trying to shake hands with every senator and the president of the United States,” Romney said. Santos shot back at Romney on Twitter, saying he’d never be president.
But one thing that Biden has proven throughout his presidency is that his goal is less showman than steady hand — whose victories emerge from the perception he is the reasonable option in overly-heated political battles.
And within the White House, aides celebrated the GOP outbursts as accomplishing the goal they had laid out: selling the president as an experienced and pragmatic leader who has already made the nation safer and more prosperous, and who is able to rise above the partisan chaos that has gripped Washington.
“The people sent us a clear message: fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict, gets us nowhere,” Biden said. “And that’s always been my vision for the country.”
Biden’s effort to appeal to the center will become even more important as the 2024 campaign cycle revs up.
Republican candidates – declared and potential – spent the day of the State of the Union appealing to the party’s more extreme wings. Former President Donald Trump insinuated on his personal social media network that Ron DeSantis, his likely rival for the nomination, engaged in grooming. The Florida governor meanwhile held a roundtable meeting to rail against what he called media bias.
Democrats also saw a favorable contrast with the official Republican response to Biden’s speech, delivered by Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The former White House press secretary for Trump painted a dark picture of a “left-wing culture war” in which Americans were forced to partake in liberal “rituals, salute their flags, and worship their false idols.”
There are risks to Biden’s strategy. While he has enjoyed electoral success, the president risks a re-election campaign with a tougher opponent than Trump and without the boost that last year’s Supreme Court abortion ruling gave to Democrats in the midterms.
His efforts to tout his achievements so far have struggled to break through to voters. Some 62% of Americans believe Biden has accomplished “not very much” or “little or nothing” during his presidency, while 36% say he has accomplished “a great deal” or “a good amount,” according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released this week.
He has never been among the more distinguished presidential orators, and Tuesday’s address – which saw him bungle Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s leadership position and lean frequently on stale rhetoric that has carried over from a years-old stump speech — is unlikely to change that perception.
And Biden’s delivery also offered Republicans occasional opportunities to undermine his effort to paint himself as a centrist.
When Biden said he had told energy companies “we’re going to need oil for at least another decade,” the abbreviated timeline drew uproarious laughter from Republicans and left the president backpedaling. It was a line destined to become a sound bite in 2024 GOP attack ads.
Still, the off-key moments weren’t enough to overwhelm the broader tone of the speech, or the moments where Biden, 80, seemed to relish engaging with his Republican antagonists, flashing a pep and nimbleness that counters concerns about his age.
And Biden touted bipartisan accomplishments from the beginning of his term, noting with a twinkle that some Republicans wanted to tout his signature infrastructure bill – even if they themselves did not join their colleagues in voting for it.
“I promised to be the president for all Americans,” Biden said, adding with a dig at the opposition: “We’ll fund your projects. And I’ll see you at the ground-breaking.”
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.
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