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February 7, 2023
And then there was President Joe Biden’s 2023 State of the Union address.
This is the annual event in our politics that gets the most viewers. Last year, 38.2 million people watched it on television and streaming services.
What viewers saw tonight was a president repeatedly offering to work across the aisle as he outlined a moderate plan for the nation with a wide range of popular programs. He sounded calm, reasonable, and upbeat, while Republicans refused to clap for his successes—800,000 new manufacturing jobs, 20,000 new infrastructure projects, lower drug prices—or his call to strengthen the middle class.
And then, when he began to talk about future areas of potential cooperation, Republicans went feral. They heckled, catcalled, and booed, ignoring House speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) attempts to shush them. At the State of the Union, in the U.S. Capitol, our lawmakers repeatedly interrupted the president with insults, yelling “liar” and “bullsh*t.” And cameras caught it all.
Extremist Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), her hands cupping her wide open mouth to scream at the president, became the face of the Republican Party.
Biden began with gracious remarks toward a number of Republicans as well as Democrats, then emphasized how Republicans and Democrats came together over the past two years to pass consequential legislation. Speaker McCarthy had asked him to take this tone, and he urged Republicans to continue to work along bipartisan lines, noting that the American people have made it clear they disapprove of “fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict.”
For the next hour the president laid out a promise to continue to rebuild the middle class, hollowed out by 40 years of policies based on the idea that cutting taxes and concentrating wealth among the “job creators” would feed the economy and create widespread prosperity. He listed the accomplishments of his administration so far: unemployment at a 50-year low, 800,000 good manufacturing jobs, lower inflation, 10 million new small businesses, the return of the chip industry to the United States, more than $300 billion in private investment in manufacturing, more than 20,000 new infrastructure projects, lower health care costs, Medicare negotiations over drug prices, investment in new technologies to combat climate change. He promised to continue to invest in the places and people who have been forgotten.
Biden described a national vision that includes everyone. It is a modernized version of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, and he very clearly invited non-MAGA Republicans to embrace it. He thanked those Republicans who voted for the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, then tweaked those who had voted against it but claimed credit for funding. He told them not to worry: “I promised to be the president for all Americans. We’ll fund your projects. And I’ll see you at the ground-breaking.”
But then he hit the key point for Republicans: taxes. To pay for this investment in the future, Biden called for higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy. He noted that “in 2020, 55 of the biggest companies in America made $40 billion in profits and paid zero in federal income taxes.” “That’s simply not fair,” he said. He signed into law the requirement that billion-dollar companies have to pay a minimum of 15%—less than a nurse pays, he pointed out—and he called for a billionaire minimum tax. While he reiterated his promise that no one making less than $400,000 a year would pay additional taxes, he said “no billionaire should pay a lower tax rate than a school teacher or a firefighter.” He also called for quadrupling the tax on corporate stock buybacks.
Republicans consider these proposals nonstarters because their whole vision is based on the idea of cutting taxes to free up capital. By committing to higher taxes on the wealthy, Biden was laying out a vision that is very much like that from the time before Reagan. It is a rejection of his policies and instead a full-throated defense of the idea that the government should work for ordinary Americans, rather than the rich.
And then he got into the specifics of legislation going forward, and Republicans lost it. The minority party has occasionally been vocal about its dislike of the State of the Union since Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC) shouted “You lie!” at President Obama in 2009 (Obama was telling the truth); a Democrat yelled “That’s not true” at Trump in 2018 as he, in fact, lied about immigration policy. But tonight was a whole new kind of performance.
Biden noted that he has cut the deficit by more than $1.7 trillion (in part because pandemic programs are expiring) and that Trump increased the deficit every year of his presidency, even before the pandemic hit. And yet, Congress responded to the rising debt under Trump by raising the debt limit, cleanly, three times.
Biden asked Congress to “commit here tonight that the full faith and credit of the United States of America will never, ever be questioned.” This, of course, is an issue that has bitterly divided Republicans, many of whom want to hold the country hostage until they get what they want. But they can’t agree on what they want, so they are now trying to insist that Biden is refusing to negotiate the budget when, in fact, he has simply said he will not negotiate over the debt ceiling. Budget negotiations are a normal part of legislating, and he has said he welcomes such talks. Tonight, once again, he asked the Republicans to tell the American people what, exactly, they propose.
And then Biden did something astonishing. He tricked the Republicans into a public declaration of support for protecting Social Security and Medicare. He noted that a number of Republicans have called for cutting, or even getting rid of, Social Security and Medicare. This is simply a fact—it is in Senator Rick Scott’s (R-FL) pre-election plan; the Republican Study Committee’s budget; statements by Senators Mike Lee (R-UT), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Ron Johnson (R-WI); and so on—but Republicans booed Biden and called him a liar for suggesting they would make those cuts, and they did so in public.
Seeming to enjoy himself, Biden jumped on their assertion, forcing them to agree that there would be no cuts to Social Security or Medicare. It was budget negotiation in real time, and it left Biden holding all the cards.
From then on, Republican heckling got worse, especially as Biden talked about banning assault weapons. Biden led the fight to get them banned in 1994, but when Republicans refused to reauthorize that law, it expired and mass shootings tripled. Gun safety is popular in the U.S., and Republicans, many of whom have been wearing AR-15 pins on their lapels, booed him. When he talked about more work to stop fentanyl production, one of the Republican lawmakers yelled, “It’s your fault.”
In the midst of the heckling, Biden praised Republican president George W. Bush’s bipartisan $100 billion investment in HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.
And then, in this atmosphere, Biden talked about protecting democracy. “For the last few years our democracy has been threatened, attacked, and put at risk,” he said. “Put to the test here, in this very room, on January 6th.”
With lawmakers demonstrating the dangerous behavior he was warning against, he said: “We must all speak out. There is no place for political violence in America. 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 harbor.”
“Democracy must not be a partisan issue. It must be an American issue.”
With Republicans scoffing at him, he ended with a vision of the nation as one of possibility, hope, and goodness. “We must be the nation we have always been at our best. Optimistic. Hopeful. Forward-looking. A nation that embraces light over darkness, hope over fear, unity over division. Stability over chaos.”
“We must see each other not as enemies, but as fellow Americans. We are a good people.”
Arkansas governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave the Republican rebuttal. Full of references to the culture wars and scathing of Biden, she reinforced the Republican stance during the speech. “The dividing line in America is no longer between right or left,” she said. “The choice is between normal or crazy.”
She is probably not the only one who is thinking along those lines after tonight’s events, but many are likely drawing a different conclusion than she intended.