At the State of the Union, Joe Biden Brings It and Bests Another GOP Speaker

At the State of the Union, Joe Biden Brings It and Bests Another GOP Speaker

At the State of the Union, Joe Biden Brings It and Bests Another GOP Speaker

In a high-energy address, Biden championed his record and defended himself against claims that he’s too old for the job. It was just the speech he needed to give.


I felt crazy anxious in the run-up to this year’s State of the Union address, because I remembered how President Joe Biden crushed it a year ago. He silenced critics focused on his age and sharpness with a masterful performance. Could he possibly do it again?

Last year, it wasn’t so much the content—though that was good—but his impromptu sparring with uncouth GOP hecklers that made for a compelling performance. Marjorie Taylor Greene, dressed like a polar bear Cruella de Vil, yapped at Biden like one of Cruella’s dogs. Then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy lost control of his rowdy caucus only to see Biden humiliate them, repeatedly. As I wrote then, “The 80-year-old president bested the 58-year-old House speaker.”

McCarthy, of course, was later toppled by the fringe in his caucus that tried but failed to intimidate Biden. Last night, it was inexperienced Speaker-by-default Mike Johnson sitting next to Vice President Kamala Harris and behind Biden. Like McCarthy, Johnson tried to warn his caucus against self-destructive outbursts. It didn’t work. Johnson looked like a tadpole sitting next to Harris, shaking his head, pursing his lips, seeming tiny and refusing to stand, even when he occasionally clapped for Biden, as on Ukraine funding (which he hasn’t passed), looking ashamed when his asshole caucus heckled this year too. He didn’t even stand for trying to eradicate cancer! Poor guy.

I can’t say Biden shut down the doubters, even in the Democratic Party: Their brand is doubt. It pays well. But he outperformed his 2023 SOTU victory, and my expectations, on every level: combativeness, progressivism, and vigor.

The jackals were there again. Greene showed up, defiant, in a MAGA 2020 hat. Lauren Boebert looked sad, with her hair up high and in a blue dress fit for a prom she wasn’t attending. Unlike last year, she never howled. Their buddy Matt Gaetz had warned them and others against heckling Biden again, given how it backfired last year. But it didn’t work. MAGAs heckled, including Greene, and again Biden owned them.

If you believe congressional Democrats are wetting their Depends and lamenting Biden’s decision to run again, it didn’t look like it Thursday night. It took the president almost a half hour to make his way through the chamber to the podium as he was mobbed by Democrats (and even a couple of Republicans). And after his kick-ass speech, it took him even longer to get out. He got cross-cultural plaudits: “That was a sermon tonight,” Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock, pastor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, told the president on his way to the exit. “You brought the Irish fire tonight,” Representative Pat Ryan (D-N.Y.) said later. I concur with both.

I admit that the doubters had me worried Biden couldn’t match his 2023 performance. Again, I’ve got to learn to ignore the doubters.

If you wondered how central abortion and reproductive healthcare will be in November, look at some of the guests in the gallery invited by first lady Jill Biden and members of Congress: Kate Cox, who had to leave Texas to get an abortion when a fatal fetal abnormality threatened to doom not just her future child but her future fertility as well; Brittany Watts, the Ohio woman who was briefly prosecuted for abusing a corpse after, in grief and confusion, she flushed the toilet when miscarrying there; Latorya Beasley, an Alabama woman who had to delay her IVF treatment, now that her state has seemed to ban it; Dr. Austin Dennard, a Texas ob-gyn who had to leave the state for her own abortion care, a guest of Ted Cruz’s worthy challenger Colin Allred.

Virginia Senator Tim Kaine’s guest was Elizabeth Carr, the first child (now 42) conceived via IVF, born in Richmond, Va. Then there was the decision by female Democrats to wear suffragist white, to emphasize women’s rights. You could not miss the messages.

As Biden said in his speech: SCOTUS wrote in the Dobbs decision overturning Roe, “Women are not without electoral or political power.” Then he ad-libbed: “With all due respect, justices… You’re about to realize just how much.” He went on: “Clearly, those bragging about overturning Roe v. Wade have no clue about the power of women in America. But they found out when reproductive freedom was on the ballot and won in 2022, 2023, and they will find out again in 2024. If Americans send me a Congress that supports the right to choose, I promise you: I will restore Roe v. Wade as the law of the land again.”

That was quite the stick in the eye to SCOTUS by a president considered a traditionalist. (I still wish he’d come out for expanding the court.)

But that was all slightly predictable, the details if not the delivery, as much was in text released beforehand. Biden’s pugnacity, on everything from January 6 to Ukraine funding to voting rights and his entire domestic agenda, wasn’t. First, we heard in all the pre-writes that he wasn’t going to mention Donald Trump. That was technically correct; he never mentioned the name. But he mentioned “my predecessor” more than a dozen times.

“Not since President Lincoln and the Civil War have freedom and democracy been under assault at home as they are today,” Biden shouted. “What makes our moment rare is the freedom of democracy, under attack both at home and overseas.” He went on: “You can’t love your country only when you win…. Remember your oath of office, defending democracy at home and abroad.”

Biden went hard on Ukraine funding. “My predecessor told Putin: ‘Do whatever the hell you want.’ That’s dangerous and unacceptable.” It was awkward behind the president; Harris repeatedly jumped to her feet to applaud, while Johnson, who allegedly supports Ukraine aid, clapped and shook his head yes, but wouldn’t stand up.

Biden hit Johnson and the House GOP for rejecting a bipartisan border bill passed by the Senate, which is more conservative than progressives wanted. (And no, I didn’t like Biden’s later use of the word “illegal.” But can we have some proportion here?) He blamed Republicans for caving to Trump, who opposed the compromise because it would have given Biden a win. Amazingly, to me, conservative Senator James Lankford, who shepherded the bipartisan bill through the Senate, mouthed, “That’s right” about Biden’s version of the border bill travesty and tanking by Trump. Johnson shook his head “no,” which was a lie, but seemed to sink lower in his seat at that point. As well he should have. And he seemed to do so most of the night.

Biden had fun. He mocked GOP congresspersons for bragging in their districts about the bounty of programs, like the CHIPS Act and the Investment Reduction Act, that they didn’t support. “Some of you who voted against it are taking credit,” he said, amused.

He promoted his continued support for unions, which “built the middle class,” and for the battle to negotiate drug prices with Big Pharma—promising to spread the benefits beyond Medicare recipients, where they’re limited now, to all Americans. As someone who’s covered healthcare policy for 30 years, seeing an American president boast about his winning battles against the pharmaceutical regime was bracing.

Then he came to the nightmare in Gaza. He promoted his new plan to create a humanitarian pier off Gaza, where the US and allies can deliver aid without dealing with the battle-choked corridors of the strip.

There have been mixed reactions to Biden’s plan: Critics understandably question giving Israel military aid with one hand while building this humanitarian outpost with the other. It seems a desperate effort to circumvent Benjamin Netanyahu’s stubborn resistance to Biden’s efforts to blunt the overwhelming Israeli assault on Gaza citizens and its cruel blockade of aid to them. But times are desperate. And following Vice President Harris’s moving remarks about the onslaught on Gaza in Selma, Ala., on Sunday, the president expressed more sadness and frustration with Gazan civilian casualties than he has before.

This war has taken a greater toll on innocent civilians than all previous wars in Gaza combined. More than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed, most of whom are not Hamas.

Thousands and thousands of innocents, women and children. Girls and boys also orphaned.

Nearly two million more Palestinians under bombardment or displacement. Homes destroyed, neighborhoods in rubble, cities in ruin. Families without food, water, medicine. It’s heartbreaking.

I’ve been working nonstop to establish an immediate cease-fire that would last for six weeks to get all the prisoners released—all the hostages released. It would get the hostages home, and ease the intolerable humanitarian crisis, and build toward…something more enduring.

Then he went more directly at Israel:

And Israel must do its part. Israel must allow more aid into Gaza and ensure humanitarian workers aren’t caught in the crossfire. They’re announcing they’re going to have a crossing to northern Gaza.

To the leadership of Israel I say this: Humanitarian assistance cannot be a secondary consideration or a bargaining chip. Protecting and saving innocent lives has to be a priority. As we look to the future, the only real solution to the situation is a two-state solution over time.

And I say this as a lifelong supporter of Israel.… I’m the only American president to visit Israel in wartime.

Biden took several rhetorical steps forward last night. Let’s watch what happens next.

Biden wrapped by directly addressing the infinite and often silly complaints about his age, as so many of his allies and critics advised. “I know I may not look like it, but I’ve been around a while,” he said. “And when you get to my age certain things become clearer than ever before.” His 81 years, he added, had taught him to “embrace freedom and democracy” and “to give hate no safe harbor.”

He spoke of being “vice president, to our first Black president, now president, with our first woman vice president,” who also happens to be Black and Asian. “In my career I’ve been told I’m too young and I’m too old.” That felt poignant; throughout a long career, if we’re lucky, we’ll all deal with that. “The issue facing our nation isn’t how old we are, it’s how old our ideas are,” he went on. “Hate, anger, revenge, retribution are among the oldest of ideas. But you can’t lead America with ancient ideas that only take us back.”

It took Biden more than a half hour to get out of the chamber after a speech his Democratic colleagues loved. They mobbed him. Someone started turning out the lights, but that didn’t stop him. I don’t want to make too much of one speech on one night, eight months before the election. But I regularly, reluctantly, watch Donald Trump, and if The New York Times and other media outlets don’t start comparing him and Biden head to head, in terms of their competence and their coherence and their optimism about the American future (or lack of it) in running this race, they will deserve all of the derision they’re getting. And more.

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