In his first State of the Union address to a divided Congress, the US president promoted the legislative achievements of his two years in office and promised a strong return to production and manufacturing in the country.
“We are ensuring that the supply chain for America begins in America”, said Joe Biden, in a speech in which he spent a lot of time talking about the economy, infrastructure and employment, and where he announced proposals and measures.
One of them was related to domestic manufacture. “I am announcing new requirements that all building materials used in federal infrastructure projects must be manufactured in America,” Biden said. “Lumber, glass, plasterboard, fiber optic cables made in America,” she said.
This was one of the transversal points of the State of the Union speech: the focus on domestic productionthe return to good blue-collar jobs and the nod to a working class that has felt “forgotten”, as well as a lot of insistence on health reforms.
All in a context where, despite falling inflation, economic growth and historically low unemployment, many Americans feel that the country is in poor economic shape and heading for a recession.
The State of the Union, seen by tens of millions of Americans, was Joe Biden’s opportunity to change the narrative and also to lean the republicans against the wall in the dispute over the public debt ceiling, which has to be raised so that the country can pay its bills.
“Some of my Republican friends want to take the economy hostage unless I accept their economic plans,” Biden pointed out.
“Instead of making the rich pay their share, some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to disappear,” he said.
Several Republican congressmen reacted with boos and boos to these statements, with extremist Marjorie Taylor Greene even shouting “liar!”.
The president smiled and questioned the agitators, urging them to contact his office to receive a copy of that proposal. In the face of denial from the other side of the bench, Biden said he appreciated “the conversion” of congressmen who now “see” that this should not be done. The proposal, by Republican Senator Rick Scott, is available in the 2022 “Rescue America” plan.
The moment was one of the most analyzed after the speech. Former Fox News journalist Chris Wallace said that Republicans “fell for it” of the president and CNN center Jake Tapper considered that the agitators “got to look bad and gave Biden an opportunity to look vigorous”.
These exchanges contrasted with the president’s calls for bipartisanship and working together with Republicans to improve Americans’ lives. Many of the proposals he spoke of, from lowering insulin prices to ending hidden fees on travel bookings, are not controversial.
“I have signed over 300 bipartisan pieces of legislation since I took office,” Biden said. “My Republican friends, if we worked together in the last session of Congress, there’s no reason why we can’t work together in this one.”
The president’s message and tone were popular with the public, with CNN’s post-speech polls resulting in a 72% positive rating of voters. It was one percentage point above last year’s performance.
Biden’s combative energy was tempered at certain key moments, such as when he introduced the parents of Tire Nicholls, an African-American man who was beaten to death by four police officers in Memphis. The President praised the courage of Nicholls’ mother, who told him he was “a beautiful soul and something good will come of this”.
Also in attendance was Brandon Tsay, a young man who grappled with the gunman who killed 11 people at a dance studio in Monterey, California. The story was the motto to talk about armed violence and the need to “ban assault weapons”.
Biden also preempted some Republican attacks. “If you will not approve of my extensive immigration reformat least approve the plan to provide the necessary equipment and agents to secure the border”.
On many occasions, the Democrat spoke of “finishing what was started”, something that was understood as an allusion to re-candidating for a second term as president.
He was also optimistic and did not spare praise for the spirit and soul of America, a country that emerges “stronger” from crises and is marked by “progress and resilience”.
Biden addressed the end of the health emergency due to the covid-19 pandemic, the revocation of the federal right to abortion and the crisis of deaths caused by opiate abuse, in particular Fentanyl.
The head of state also made reference to China, after an alleged spy balloon was shot down in US airspace. “If China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country,” he said. Some commentators pointed to the brevity with which the topic was addressed, one of the weaknesses of the speech given the seriousness of the situation.
Also on foreign policy, Biden hailed US leadership in helping Ukraine and in the transatlantic alliance against Russian invasion and tyranny, ensuring that democracies are stronger. “Betting against America was never a good bet,” she said, prompting the audience to erupt in chants of “USA! USA!” The Democrat promised to continue to support Ukraine “for as long as it takes”.
“Because the soul of the nation is strong, its backbone is strong and the people of the nation are strong, the State of the Union is strong,” concluded the president. “We are the United States of America and there is nothing beyond our capabilities if we do it together,” he added.
Biden’s upbeat tone was rebuffed by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, governor of Arkansas and former White House press secretary for Donald Trump, who delivered the Republican response.
Sanders portrayed an America harassed by the “radical left” and at risk of losing its freedoms, in the face of a “weak” Joe Biden, unable to protect borders and dominated by the oppression of the “woken mob” (socially progressive).
“America is great because we are free but our freedom is under attack”, he summarized, after speaking of reforms in education, which reject “the indoctrination” of children, and of a new generation of republicans ready to fight for the citizens.
“The choice isn’t between the right and the left, it’s between normal and crazy,” Sanders pointed out, arguing that Republicans are the normal ones and the Democrats are the crazy ones.
Commentator Van Jones felt that the response made her seem unnecessarily “mean” and strategist David Axelrod said that it may have worked with the Republican party’s base but that it failed to reach the general electorate.
In the reactions, former Vice President Mike Pence said that the speech showed that “it is time for new Republican leadership” and pointed out Joe Biden’s “failed external leadership”, mirrored in the Ukraine war and the “disastrous” withdrawal from Afghanistan .
Nikki Haley, former US ambassador to the United Nations, criticized Biden’s economic plan and his border policies, saying he spent “two years refusing to resolve the crisis he created”.
The State of the Union is traditionally a president’s most powerful direct communication weapon. At last year’s speech, 38 million Americans watched the television broadcast.