Within the first few minutes of President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, it was clear the speech he would deliver Tuesday night was not going to be a partisan diatribe.
Instead of the standard pleasantries presidents have used to begin the annual ritual for decades, Mr Biden opened with a joke, asking Chief Justice John Roberts for a “court order” allowing him to skip Sunday’s Super Bowl while allowing First Lady Jill Biden to watch her beloved Philadelphia Eagles.
Turning next to the upper tier of the rostrum behind him, the president offered his congratulations to the new Republican Speaker of the House – a man who has vowed to block much of his and his party’s agenda on the way to denying him a second term – Representative Kevin McCarthy of California.
After shaking Mr McCarthy’s hand, the president quipped: “I don't want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to working with you.”
Mr Biden, the oldest man ever to serve as America’s chief executive at 80 years of age, spent much of the next one hour and 12 minutes making clear his words to his Republican would-be nemesis weren’t just idle talk.
The 46th president touted the positive results of the aspects of his economic and legislative agenda that have been enacted over his first two years in office, and appeared to take particular pleasure in pointing out how America’s economy has recovered from the worst days of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Two years ago, our economy was reeling. As I stand here tonight, we have created a record 12 million new jobs, more jobs created in two years than any president has ever created in four years.
“Two years ago, Covid had shut down our businesses, closed our schools, and robbed us of so much. Today, Covid no longer controls our lives. And two years ago, our democracy faced its greatest threat since the Civil War. Today, though bruised, our democracy remains unbowed and unbroken,” he said.
He spent more than two thirds of his remarks recounting a laundry list of agenda items he hopes to enact with the aid of the Republican House Mr McCarthy now leads.
He pointed out that he has signed into law more than 300 separate pieces of legislation with significant bipartisan support, including a “once in a generation infrastructure law”. He said he will “build bridges connecting our nation and our people,” and a veterans benefit law meant to benefit service members who’ve suffered from exposure to toxic burn pits while deployed overseas.
“You know, we’re often told that Democrats and Republicans can’t work together. But over these past two years, we proved the cynics and the naysayers wrong,” he said. “Yes, we disagreed plenty. And yes, there were times when Democrats had to go it alone. But time and again, Democrats and Republicans came together”.
In one part of his speech, the president’s rhetoric took on a populist tone that would have been equally appropriate coming from the mouth of his predecessor, former president Donald Trump.
Mr Biden lamented how the American middle class has been “hollowed out” over a period of decades, while “good-paying manufacturing jobs moved overseas” and “factories at home closed down”.
Referring back to the theme of his 2020 campaign, Mr Biden said his “vision for country” has always been to “restore the soul of America” to “rebuild the backbone ... of the middle class,” and to “unite the country”.
In what looked to be a preview of his 2024 reelection theme, Mr Biden exhorted both sides of the aisle to take up the unfinished parts of his agenda.
Over and over again, he told Congress — and viewers at home — that it is “time to finish the job”.
But Mr Biden, who is widely expected to announce his candidacy for reelection in the coming weeks, did more than call on Congress to take up his preferred programmes.
He engaged in a lively back-and-forth with a Republican caucus that felt emboldened to heckle and act out in disrespectful displays that would’ve been unheard of — or widely condemned by both parties — in years past.
At times, the interactive interplay between the president and the GOP side of the House chamber seemed more akin to what British Prime Ministers have long experienced at the hands of the opposition during Question Time. The jeering and interruptions might have been par for the course in Westminster, but not on Capitol Hill.
Still, the president appeared to revel in the engagement.
At one point, GOP members reacted to Mr Biden pointing out how his predecessor ballooned America’s national debt by levels far greater than any of the previous 44 presidents with groans and shouts.
The president, with a slight grin on his face, responded immediately.
“Those are the facts,” he said, adding later that any Republicans who doubted him should “look it up”.
A short time later, the Republican side of the chamber responded to Mr Biden referencing a widely publicised GOP plan to “sunset” popular programs such as Social Security and Medicare with a chorus of boos, and he reacted by stressing that only “some” on the GOP side of the aisle have issued such a proposal.
As he continued his remarks by vowing not to be “moved into being threatened to default” on America’s sovereign debt by Republicans who have designs on cutting those entitlement programmes, GOP members continue to shout him down.
After hesitating a beat, Mr Biden retorted: “So folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the off the books now”.
He urged both sides to “stand up and show them” that neither Social Security nor Medicare would face cuts, while defiantly vowing that any legislation that took the knife to either programme would be swiftly met with a veto.
“I'll stop them. I'll veto it. I'm not gonna allow them to take away be taken away. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever,” he said, drawing laughs from both sides when he quipped: “But apparently it's not going to be a problem”.
Mr Biden also draw some measure of bipartisan applause — with one glaring exception — when he called on lawmakers to recognize family members of Black Americans who’ve lost their lives at the hands of law enforcement officers in recent years.
Pointing to First Lady Jill Biden’s box, he noted that his wife was joined by the parents of Tyre Nichols, the Memphis, Tennesee man who was beaten to death by a quintet of police officers who now face murder charges.
“We all want the same thing. Neighborhoods free of violence. Law enforcement who earn the community’s trust. Our children to come home safely. Equal protection under the law; that’s the covenant we have with each other in America,” he said, adding that police are asked to “do too much”.
“I know most cops are good. decent people. They risk their lives every time they put on that shield. But what happened to Tyre in Memphis happens too often. We have to do better,” he said.
Mr Biden also drew positive acknowledgements from at least some of the GOP side when he raised the issue of what he has described in the past as America’s “strategic competition” with the People’s Republic of China, just days after a US Air Force jet shot down a Chinese espionage airship that had traversed the country.
“I’ve made clear with President Xi that we seek competition, not conflict. I will make no apologies that we are investing to make America strong. Investing in American innovation, in industries that will define the future, and that China’s government is intent on dominating, investing in our alliances and working with our allies to protect our advanced technologies so they’re not used against us,” he said, adding that under his leadership the US is now “modernizing our military to safeguard stability and deter aggression”.
“Today, we’re in the strongest position in decades to compete with China or anyone else in the world. I am committed to work with China where it can advance American interests and benefit the world. 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,” he said.
But Mr Biden also found himself on the receiving end of more Republican disrespect when he took a moment to recognise the father of a New Hampshire girl named Courtney, who’d lost her life to a fentanyl overdose.
The president, whose own son is known to suffer from substance use disorder, pointed out that the synthetic opioid now kills over 70,000 Americans every year.
It was at that poignant moment that Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene chose to interject, screaming from the back of the room that those deaths — and by implication the death of that teenaged girl — were Mr Biden’s fault.
The president paused, but he did not appear shaken by the bizarre outburst. He continued his remarks for several more minutes, closing with a condemnation of political violence of the sort that visited the former Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, last year when a deranged man beat her husband Paul with a hammer after breaking into her home.
“Such a heinous act never should have happened,” he said, before exhorting Americans to “speak out” against political violence.
“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. And we must give hate and extremism in any form no safe harbour,” he said.
In an echo of his 2020 stump speech — and perhaps another preview of his upcoming reelection campaign — Mr Biden urged lawmakers — and viewers across the country — to work towards making sure the US is a nation that “embraces, light over darkness, hope over fear, unity over division, [and] stability over chaos”.
He closed with a nod to the reason he’d come to Capitol Hill that evening, to “report on the state of the union”.
“Because the soul of this nation is strong, because the backbone of this nation is strong, because the people of this nation are strong, the State of the Union is strong,” he said. “As I stand here tonight, I have never been more optimistic about the future of America. We just have to remember who we are.”
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