Biden is urging Republicans to work with him

President Joe Biden repeatedly urged Republicans to work with him Tuesday night to “finish the job,” rebuild the economy, and unite the nation when he delivered a State of the Union address that was one of pessimism and tense politics to calm a country plagued by divisions.

The backdrop for the annual address was markedly different from the previous two years, when a Republican speaker sat deadpan behind Biden and GOP lawmakers in the audience, preparing to scrutinize both his administration and his policies.

But Biden sought to portray a nation dramatically different, in positive ways, from the one he was leading two years ago: from a faltering economy to a prosperous one with new jobs; from a crippled, pandemic-weary nation to one that has now opened up and a democracy that has survived its greatest test since the Civil War.

“The story of America is a story of progress and resilience. Always going forward. Never give up. A story unique among all nations,” said Biden. “We are the only country that has emerged from every crisis stronger than we entered it. We’ll do that again.”

He added, “We’re far from done.”

Biden tried to reassure the nation that his leadership of the country had produced results both at home and abroad as he also wanted to demonstrate his fitness for a likely re-election.

President Joe Biden greets Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett while Justice Ketanji Brown applauds Jackson as he arrives to deliver the State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress at the Capitol Tuesday, March 1, 2023, in to hold Washington. (Jacquelyn Martin, swimming pool)

But the challenges for Biden are multiple: economic uncertainty, a tiring war in Ukraine, rising tensions with China, and more. And the signs of past trauma at the Capitol, particularly the January 6, 2021 Capitol riot, were inevitable as a large fence surrounded the complex as lawmakers and those present faced tighter security measures than usual.

From the beginning the partisan detachments were clear. Democrats — including Vice President Kamala Harris — applauded as Biden began his speech. Kevin McCarthy, Speaker of the new Republican House of Representatives, remained in his seat despite warmly greeting the President as he entered the room.

Rather than offer flashy policy suggestions, the President proceeded to offer a reassuring assessment of the state of the nation, declaring that America’s democracy is “unbowed and unbroken” two years after the attack on the Capitol.

“The history of America is a history of progress and resilience,” he said, highlighting record job creation during his tenure as the country emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Biden also pointed to areas of bipartisan progress in his first two years in office, including states’ vital infrastructure and high-tech manufacturing. And he says, “There’s no reason we can’t work together on this new convention.”

“People sent us a clear message. Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict is getting us nowhere,” Biden said. “And that has always been my vision for the country: to restore the soul of the nation, to rebuild the backbone of America – the middle class – to unite the country.”

“We were sent here to finish the job!”

(Patrick Semansky via AP) President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress in the US Capitol Tuesday, February 7, 2023, in Washington.

The president took the lectern in the House of Representatives at a time when just a quarter of adult Americans say things are moving in the right direction in the country, according to a new poll from 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 tried to counter these feelings head-on.

“You’re wondering if there’s even any way you and your kids can move forward without moving away, I get it,” Biden said. “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 decisions we’ve made over the past two years.”

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who had made a name for herself nationally as Trump’s press secretary, was to provide the Republican response to Biden’s speech.

She should focus much of her speech on social issues, including race in business and education and alleged big-tech censorship by conservatives.

“While reaping the consequences of their failures, the Biden administration seems more interested in awakened fantasies than the harsh reality Americans face every day,” she was to say, according to excerpts released by her office. “Most Americans just want to live their lives in freedom and peace, but we are being attacked in a left-wing culture war that we didn’t start and never wanted to fight.”

With COVID-19 restrictions now lifted, the White House and lawmakers from both parties invited guests to carry political messages with their presence in the House of Representatives chamber. The parents of Tire Nichols, who was badly beaten by police officers in Memphis and later died, sit next to First Lady Jill Biden. Other Biden guests included rock star/humanitarian Bono and the 26-year-old, who disarmed and shot a gunman in Monterey Park, California last month.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus invited family members of those involved in police incidents to urge police reform after Nichols’ death. Leading up to the speech, the White House linked police reform to curbing violence, suggesting that providing better police training tools nationwide could lead to less crime.

Biden changed his mind after spending his first two years pushing through key bills like the bipartisan infrastructure package, legislation boosting high-tech manufacturing, and climate action. With the Republicans now in control of the House of Representatives, he is focused on implementing these massive bills and making sure voters credit him with the improvements.

(Carolyn Kaster via AP) President Joe Biden arrives to deliver his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress in the Capitol on Tuesday, February 7, 2023 in Washington.

Biden, who is not known for his oratory skills, appeared relaxed and confident as he delivered his address. He added casual remarks, fed on responses from Democratic lawmakers, who often stood to a thunderous ovation and playfully grappled with his Republican critics.

Addressing Republicans who voted against the big bipartisan infrastructure bill, Biden said he will continue to make sure their pet projects get federal support. “I promised to be the president for all Americans,” he said. “We will fund these projects. And see you at the groundbreaking.”

The switch is largely inevitable. Itching to undo many of its accomplishments, the newly empowered GOP promises to conduct a variety of investigations — including investigating the recent discovery of classified documents from his vice presidential days at his home and former office.

While pledging bipartisanship wherever possible, Biden also underscored the sharp tensions that exist between him and House Republicans: He discussed the GOP’s efforts to overturn the Democrats’ 2022 climate change and health bill and their reluctance to pass the Federal debt limit, the nation’s statutory borrowing authority, which must be raised later this year or risk defaulting.

Biden stressed that “the full confidence and creditworthiness of the United States of America will never be called into question,” and accused congressional Republicans of threatening to hold the US economy hostage to their political demands.

“Rather than let the rich pay their fair share, some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to be phased out every five years. That means unless Congress votes to keep them, those programs will go away,” Biden said. “Other Republicans say if we don’t cut Social Security and Medicare, they will default America on its debt for the first time in our history.

“I won’t allow that.”

On the eve of the president’s address, McCarthy called on Biden to come to the negotiating table with House Republicans on spending cuts under a deal to raise the debt ceiling.

“We need to move towards a balanced budget and insist on real accountability for every dollar we spend,” McCarthy said.

While hopes for large-scale bipartisanship are slim, Biden reiterated his 2022 appeal for Congress to get behind his “unity agenda” with action on the opioid epidemic, mental health, veterans’ health and cancer. He announced new executive branch action and called on lawmakers to support new actions to support cancer research, meet the housing needs and suicide among veterans, improve access to mental health care and continue to fight the deadly fentanyl trade.

The president also called for the new price cap of $35 per month for insulin for people on Medicare to be extended to everyone in the country. And he urged Congress to quadruple the 1% tax on corporate stock buybacks enacted in last year’s Democrats’ climate and health bill, known as the Inflation Reduction Act.

The speech comes days after Biden ordered the military to shoot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon, which boldly flew over the country, captivating the nation and serving as a reminder of strained relations between the two world powers.

“Make no mistake: as we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country,” Biden said. “And we have.”

Last year’s address came just days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, and many in the West doubted Kyiv would withstand the onslaught. Over the past year, the US and other allies have sent tens of billions of dollars in military and economic aid to bolster Ukraine’s defenses. Now Biden must work—both at home and abroad—to maintain that coalition as the war drags on.

AP writer Fatima Hussein contributed to this report. Biden is urging Republicans to work with him

Justin Scacco

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