WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden exhorted Congress Tuesday night to work with him to “finish the job” of rebuilding the economy and uniting the nation as he delivered a State of the Union address aimed at reassuring a country beset by pessimism and fraught political divisions.
In his 73-minute speech, Biden sought to portray a nation dramatically improved from the one he took charge of two years ago: from a reeling economy to one prosperous with new jobs; from a crippled, pandemic-weary nation to one that has now reopened, and a democracy that has survived its biggest test since the Civil War.
“Folks, the story of America is a story of progress and resilience. Of always moving forward. Of never, ever, giving up,” Biden said. “It’s a story unique among all nations. We’re the only country that has emerged from every crisis we’ve ever entered stronger than when we got into it.”
“We’re not finished yet by any stretch of the imagination,” he declared.
The backdrop for the annual address was markedly different from the previous two years, with a Republican speaker now sitting expressionless behind Biden and newly empowered GOP lawmakers in the chamber sometimes shouting criticism of him and his administration.
As Biden, 80, prepares for a likely reelection bid, he sought to prove to a skeptical nation that his stewardship has delivered results both at home and abroad. He highlighted record job creation during his tenure as the country has emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic, and pointed to areas of bipartisan progress in his first two years in office, including on states’ vital infrastructure projects and high-tech manufacturing. And he said, “There is no reason we can’t work together and find consensus on important thing in this Congress as well.”
“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. “That’s always been my vision for the country: to restore the soul of the nation, to rebuild the backbone of America — the middle class — and unite the country.”
“We’ve been sent here to finish the job!”
But the challenges for Biden are many: economic uncertainty, a wearying war in Ukraine, growing tensions with China and more. Signs of past trauma at the Capitol, most notably the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection, were unavoidable: A large fence encircled the complex, and lawmakers and those in attendance faced tighter-than-usual security.
From the start, the heightened partisan divisions were clear. Democrats — including Vice President Kamala Harris — jumped to applause as Biden began his speech. New Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, though he had greeted the president warmly when he entered the chamber, stayed in his seat.
The speech came as Biden has shifted his sights after spending his first two years pushing through major bills such as the bipartisan infrastructure package, legislation to promote high-tech manufacturing and climate measures. With Republicans now in control of the House, and even meeting the government’s fiscal obligations far from certain, Biden is turning his focus to implementing those massive laws and making sure voters credit him for the improvements.
Instead of flashy proposals, the president offered an encouraging assessment of the nation’s condition, declaring that two years after the Capitol attack, America’s democracy was “unbowed and unbroken.”
The president took to the House rostrum at a time when just a quarter of U.S. adults say things are headed in the right direction, according to a new poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. About three-quarters say things are on the wrong track. And a majority of Democrats don’t want Biden to seek another term.
He sought to confront those sentiments head-on.
“You wonder whether the path even exists anymore for your children to get ahead without having to move away,” Biden said. “I get that. That’s why we’re building an economy where no one is left behind. Jobs are coming back, pride is coming back because of the choices we made in the last several years.”
Biden on Wednesday was to travel to Wisconsin, as he and members of his Cabinet embark on a two-day, 20-state blitz to highlight economic progress in his first two years in office.
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who gained a national profile as former President Donald Trump’s press secretary, delivered the Republican response to Biden’s speech.
She focused much of her remarks on social issues, including race in business and education and alleged big-tech censorship of conservatives.
“While you reap the consequences of their failures, the Biden administration seems more interested in woke fantasies than the hard reality Americans face every day,” she said. “Most Americans simply want to live their lives in freedom and peace, but we are under attack in a left-wing culture war we didn’t start and never wanted to fight.”
“The choice is between normal and crazy,” she added.
With COVID-19 restrictions now lifted, the White House and legislators from both parties invited guests designed to drive home political messages with their presence in the House chamber. The mother and stepfather of Tyre Nichols, who was severely beaten by police officers in Memphis and later died, were among those seated with first lady Jill Biden. Other Biden guests included the rock star/humanitarian Bono and 26-year-old Brandon Tsay, who disarmed a gunman in last month’s Monterey Park, California, shooting.
“There’s no words to describe the heartache and grief of losing a child,” Biden said after introducing RowVaughn and Rodney Wells to a standing ovation. He called on Congress to “rise to this moment” to make meaningful change in policing.
Biden drew bipartisan applause when he praised most law enforcement officers as “good, decent, honorable people” but added that “when police officers or police departments violate the public’s trust, they must be held accountable.”
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus invited family members of those involved in police incidents, as they sought to press for action on police reform in the wake of Nichols’ death.
Biden, not known for his lofty oratory, appeared relaxed and confident as he delivered his address. He casually adlibbed jokes and rejoinders, seeming to feed off the responses from Democratic lawmakers who frequently stood with thunderous ovations and playfully engaging with Republican critics.
Addressing Republicans who voted against the big bipartisan infrastructure law, Biden said he’d still ensure their pet projects received federal support. “I promised to be the president for all Americans,” he said. “We’ll fund these projects. And I’ll see you at the ground-breaking.”
Occasional Republican heckling — some drawing hushes from McCarthy — reflected the newly empowered GOP that is itching to undo many of Biden’s achievements and vowing to pursue a multitude of investigations — including looking into the recent discoveries of classified documents from his time as vice president at his home and former office.
Though he pledged bipartisanship where possible, Biden also underscored the sharp tensions that exist: He discussed GOP efforts to repeal the Democrats’ 2022 climate change and healthcare law and their reluctance to increase the federal debt limit, the nation’s legal borrowing authority that must be raised later this year or risk default.
“Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans — some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset. I am not saying it’s a majority,” Biden said. As GOP lawmakers in the audience pushed back, Biden responded: “We’re not going to be moved into being threatened to default on the debt if we don’t respond.”
Still, some Republicans refused to back down, with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and others jumping to their feet, some yelling “Liar!”
The president answered back, “Stand up and show them: We will not cut Social Security! We will not cut Medicare!”
As Republicans continued to protest his accusations, he said, “We’ve got unanimity.”
While hopes for large-scale bipartisanship are slim, Biden reissued his 2022 appeal for Congress to get behind his “unity agenda” of actions to address the opioid epidemic, mental health, veterans’ health and cancer.
In fiery refrains, Biden said the phrase “finish the job” 13 times, challenging lawmakers to complete the work of his administration on capping insulin costs for all Americans, confronting climate change, raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations and banning assault-style weapons. But on all of those fronts, the divided government is even less likely to yield than the Congress under sole Democratic control.
The speech came days after Biden ordered the military to shoot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon that flew brazenly across the country, captivating the nation and serving as a reminder of tense relations between the two global powers.
“Make no mistake: As we made clear last week, if China’s threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country,” Biden said. “And we did.”
Last year’s address occurred just days after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine and as many in the West doubted Kyiv’s ability to withstand the onslaught. Over the past year, the U.S. and other allies have sent tens of billions of dollars in military and economic assistance to bolster Ukraine’s defenses. Now, Biden must make the case — both at home and abroad — for sustaining that coalition as the war drags on.
“Together, we did what America always does at our best,” Biden said. “We led. We united NATO. We built a global coalition. We stood against Putin’s aggression. We stood with the Ukrainian people.”
Arkansas Gov. Sanders slams Biden for ‘woke fantasies’
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders painted a dystopian portrait of the country in her rebuttal to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address Tuesday night, leaning heavily into Republican culture war issues and accusing Biden of pursuing “woke fantasies.”
Speaking from the governor’s mansion in Little Rock, Sanders sounded a lot like her former boss, Donald Trump, as she warned of a nation whose ideals are under attack and whose citizens are fighting for their freedoms.
“While you reap the consequences of their failures, the Biden administration seems more interested in woke fantasies than the hard reality Americans face every day,” said Sanders, the former White House press secretary. “Most Americans simply want to live their lives in freedom and peace, but we are under attack in a left-wing culture war we didn’t start and never wanted to fight.”
Sanders, 40, delivered the speech less than a month after being sworn in as the first female governor of Arkansas. The daughter of former Gov. Mike Huckabee, she is also the first Arkansan to deliver the response to a president’s State of the Union since Bill Clinton as governor in 1985.
Sanders’ speech was a reintroduction for the former press secretary, who as Trump’s chief spokesperson scaled back daily televised briefings after repeatedly sparring with reporters who aggressively questioned her.
She didn’t mention Trump by name during Tuesday’s speech, which embraced conservatives’ fights against the way race is taught in public school. She called Biden’s administration “completely hijacked by the radical left.”
“The dividing line in America is no longer right or left,” she said. “The choice is between normal or crazy.”
Sanders’ speech was a stark contrast to Biden’s address, which sought to reassure the country and urged Congress to work with him on rebuilding the economy.
With her speech, GOP leaders gave a platform to a figure linked closely to Trump, who remains influential within the party even as Republicans question how much of a hindrance his quest to return to the White House has become. The star turn for Sanders also puts the spotlight on the nation’s youngest governor at a time when recent polling suggests that even many Democrats view the 80-year-old Biden’s age as a liability.
Sanders highlighted that contrast, citing Biden’s age as the oldest U.S. president.
“It’s time for a new generation of Republican leadership,” she said.
Her speech comes as a Republican field for 2024 is beginning to form to challenge Trump, 76, as he seeks the White House for a third time. The field includes former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who served as U.N. ambassador under Trump and is expected to launch her candidacy next week.
Sanders’ predecessor, former Gov. Asa Hutchinson, is also considering seeking the Republican presidential nomination. Hutchinson has been an outspoken critic of Trump and has said Trump being the GOP’s nominee would be the “worst scenario” for the party.
Sanders, who served roughly two years as White House press secretary, focused heavily on her criticism of Biden during her successful bid for governor last year. She frequently railed against the Democratic president’s COVID-19 pandemic response, immigration policies and other stances.
But since the election, Sanders has mostly avoided weighing in on Trump, who endorsed her bid for governor and was featured in her campaign materials. Sanders hasn’t said whether she plans to endorse Trump, who’s making a third bid for president.
In her speech Tuesday, Sanders praised her time in the Trump administration and the work they accomplished. She also talked about her diagnosis last year with thyroid cancer, and said she is cancer-free after undergoing surgery.
Sanders also embraced the criticism of technology companies that has become a rallying cry for Republicans after Trump was suspended from social media sites following the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot. Trump has since been reinstated on Twitter, and Meta last month said the former president’s Facebook and Instagram accounts will be restored.
In her speech, Sanders complained that “big government colludes with Big Tech to strip away the most American thing there is — your freedom of speech.”
“That’s not normal. It’s crazy, and it’s wrong,” she said.
Sanders portrayed Biden as weak on national security, saying his “refusal to stand up to China, our most formidable adversary, is dangerous and unacceptable.” The comment came days after the American military shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon that drifted through U.S. airspace.
Officials have said other Chinese balloons transited the U.S. airspace at least briefly at multiple points during the Trump administration but those incursions were not detected until after Biden took office.
The culture wars are familiar territory for Sanders, who signed executive orders within hours of taking office that were cheered by conservatives. They included a prohibition on teaching critical race theory in public schools and a ban on most state agencies using the gender-neutral term Latinx.
Sanders has also said she’d support Arkansas enacting a measure similar to Florida’s law banning instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. Critics have dubbed Florida’s measure the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
The president, who’s expected to announce in the next few months that he’ll seek reelection, faces a tough political environment and a divided Congress. Polling released this week by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed just 37% of Democrats say they want him to seek a second term.
Sanders delivered the speech the day before she’s set to unveil an education proposal she’s called her priority in this year’s legislative session. Sanders has said the proposal will include teacher pay raises and some form of school choice that would allow public money to pay for private schooling.
“We will educate, not indoctrinate our kids, and put students on a path to success,” she said.