Biden uses feisty State of the Union to contrast with Trump, sell voters on a second term

Mar 6, 2024, 10:03 PM | Updated: Mar 8, 2024, 1:40 am

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(File photo: Jacquelyn Martin, Pool via Associated Press)

(File photo: Jacquelyn Martin, Pool via Associated Press)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden delivered a defiant argument for a second term in his State of the Union speech Thursday night, lacing into GOP front-runner Donald Trump for espousing “resentment, revenge and retribution” and for jeopardizing freedom at home and abroad.

Reveling in the political moment, Biden fired multiple broadsides at “my predecessor” without ever mentioning Trump by name — 13 times in all — raising his voice repeatedly as he worked to quell voter concerns about his age and job performance while sharpening the contrast with his all-but-certain November rival.

The scrappy tone from Biden was a sharp break from his often humdrum daily appearances and was intended to banish doubts about whether the 81-year-old president, the country’s oldest ever, is still up to the job.

For 68 minutes in the House chamber, Biden goaded Republicans over their policies on immigration, taxes and more, invited call-and-response banter with fellow Democrats and seemed to relish the fight.

“I know I may not look like it, but I’ve been around a while,” Biden deadpanned. “And when you get to my age certain things become clearer than ever before.”

Noting he was born during World War II and came of political age during the upheaval of the 1960s, Biden declared: “My lifetime has taught me to embrace freedom and democracy. A future based on the core values that have defined America: honesty, decency, dignity, equality. To respect everyone. To give everyone a fair shot. To give hate no safe harbor. Now some other people my age see a different story: an American story of resentment, revenge, and retribution. That’s not me.”

The president linked Trump’s praise for those who overran the Capitol in an attempt to subvert the 2020 election with antidemocratic threats abroad.

“Freedom and democracy are under attack both at home and overseas at the very same time,” Biden said as he appealed for Congress to support Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself against Russia’s two-year-old invasion. “History is watching.”

Biden directly referenced the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol, calling out those who have played it down.

“My predecessor — and some of you here — seek to bury the truth about Jan. 6 — I will not do that,” Biden said. “This is a moment to speak the truth and to bury the lies. Here’s a simple truth. You can’t love your country only when you win.”

The State of the Union address is the marquee night on the White House calendar, offering presidents a direct line to a captive audience of lawmakers and dignitaries in the House chamber and tens of millions of viewers at home — almost certain to be Biden’s largest audience of the year. Biden knew he would be watched not just for his message, but for whether he could deliver it with vigor and command.

Aides said Biden was aiming to prove his doubters wrong by flashing his combative side and trying to needle Republicans over positions he believes are out of step with the country, particularly on access to abortion, but also tax policy and healthcare.

Taking a victory lap in selling his legislative accomplishments, including funding to bolster manufacturing of computer chips nationwide, Biden veered from his prepared script to take a dig at Republicans who voted against such policies but nonetheless take credit for them back home.

“If any of you don’t want that money in your districts,” Biden said, “just let me know.”

The president was speaking before a historically ineffective Congress. In the GOP-led House, Speaker Mike Johnson took power five months ago after the chaotic ouster of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Legislators are still struggling to approve funding bills for the current year and have been deadlocked for months on foreign assistance bills to help Ukraine stave off Russia’s invasion and to support Israel’s fight against Hamas.

Johnson urged Republicans in a private meeting Wednesday to show “decorum” during the speech, but he appeared to have limited success. A number of House Republicans began to stand up and leave the chamber as Biden discussed raising taxes on billionaires and corporations. Others remained in their chairs and shook their heads, while Johnson didn’t disguise his emotions, raising his eyebrows and occasionally rolling his eyes.

Biden engaged in a loud call and response with lawmakers as he rhetorically questioned whether the tax code was fair and whether billionaires and corporations need “another $2 trillion in tax breaks,” as he charged Republicans want.

Biden also highlighted his efforts to fight “shrinkflation” — companies putting fewer pretzels in the jar and less yogurt in sealed cups — and so-called “junk fees” on services. Neither is a prime driver of inflation, but the White House hoped to show consumers that Biden is fighting for them.

Congressional Republican leaders showcased one of their newest lawmakers through the State of the Union rebuttal, hoping to make a generational contrast with Biden. Alabama Sen. Katie Britt, the youngest Republican woman elected to the Senate, painted a picture of a nation that “seems to be slipping away” and one where “our families are hurting.”

“Right now, our commander-in-chief is not in command. The free world deserves better than a dithering and diminished leader,” Britt said, speaking deliberately in an address from her home kitchen. “America deserves leaders who recognize that secure borders, stable prices, safe streets, and a strong defense are the cornerstones of a great nation.”

Biden, by contrast, insisted the state of the union was “strong and getting stronger.”

Trump responded to the speech in real time on his Truth Social site, defending himself and blasting Biden for what he said “may be the Angriest, Least Compassionate, and Worst State of the Union Speech ever made. It was an Embarrassment to our Country!”

This year, Biden faced heightened emotions — particularly among his base supporters — over his staunch backing for Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza. Biden had initially hoped a short-term cease-fire would be in place by the speech to allow for the release of more hostages and surge sorely needed aid into the territory. The White House blames Hamas for not yet accepting a deal brokered by the U.S. and its allies.

“Israel must allow more aid into Gaza and ensure that humanitarian workers aren’t caught in the crossfire,” Biden said, delivering a warning that Israel should not use aid as a “bargaining chip” with Hamas, even as he reaffirmed Israel’s right to defend itself from attacks by the militant group.

A slew of Democrats and Republicans wore pins and stickers in honor of the Israeli hostages still being held captive in Gaza. Meanwhile, several House progressives wore Palestinian keffiyehs, the black and white checkered scarfs that have come to symbolize Palestinian solidarity. Heading to the address, Biden’s motorcade took a circuitous route to the Capitol, as hundreds of pro-cease-fire demonstrators tried to disrupt its path from the White House.

Immigration was another flashpoint during the night.

The GOP-controlled House has refused to act on a Senate-passed version of the aid legislation, insisting on new stiffer measures to limit migration at the U.S.-Mexico border, after Trump used his influence to help sink a bipartisan compromise that would have done just that.

As Biden ran through the endorsements by conservative groups of the legislation, some in the audience appeared to yell and interject, and Biden shot back, “I know you know how to read.”

As Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, wearing pro-Trump paraphernalia, continued to shout at Biden, the president held up a white button that the Georgia Republican had handed him earlier bearing the name of the slain Laken Riley. Authorities say the Georgia nursing student was killed by a Venezuelan national who unlawfully crossed into the U.S. in September 2022.

“Laken Riley,” Biden said, calling her an “innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal.” He expressed condolences to her family, saying his heart goes out to them.

Access to abortion and fertility treatments was also a key component of Biden’s speech, especially in light of a controversial ruling from Alabama’s Supreme Court that has upended access to in vitro fertilization treatment in the state.

“To my friends across the aisle, don’t keep families waiting any longer,” Biden said, recognizing Latorya Beasley, a guest of first lady Jill Biden’s whose IVF treatments were cancelled after the Alabama ruling. “Guarantee the right to IVF nationwide!”

Another guest was Kate Cox, who sued Texas, and ultimately left her home state, to obtain an emergency abortion after a severe fetal anomaly was detected, in a case that drew national attention.


AP writers Stephen Groves, Josh Boak, Aamer Madhani, Farnoush Amiri, Kevin Freking, Fatima Hussein, Amanda Seitz and Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.

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Biden uses feisty State of the Union to contrast with Trump, sell voters on a second term