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The Last Hurrah

Joe Biden Finally Takes the Gloves Off

While not without some sour notes, the president’s State of the Union was sufficiently vigorous, surprisingly unconventional, and impressively partisan.

Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol on March 07, 2024.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol on March 7.

Joe Biden, first elected to Congress in 1972, has attended a great many State of the Union addresses over the course of his career. He knows their rhythms and cadences; has a feel for what presidents tend to do when they’re up and when they’re down. Whatever happens this November, this year’s address will surely go down as one of the few that probably mattered—presenting, as it did, a critical, prep-heavy, non-debate opportunity for Biden to put to rest anxieties about his age and fitness before a large national audience. He and his aides knew this going in to Thursday night’s performance. Interestingly, America’s oldest president, a decorated SOTU veteran, decided to meet that challenge by breaking aggressively from tradition.

Last year’s address offered a preview of what Biden would attempt more seriously this time around. If you recall, after a line criticizing Republican support for cutting Medicare and Social Security drew boos from Republican lawmakers, he taunted them into a promise to keep both programs out of debt ceiling negotiations. “So, folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right?” he asked. “We’ve got unanimity.” It was an unusual and memorable moment—one that went over so well with the press that Biden went out of his way to repeat it this time around with exchanges on taxes (“You guys don’t want another $2 trillion tax cut? I kind of thought that’s what your plan was”) and infrastructure spending (“If any of you don’t want that money in your district, just let me know”).

This time around, Biden’s speech wasn’t quite the “fire and brimstone” address some have described. There were the expected appeals to unity; Trump was referred to throughout, with conspicuous decorum, only as Biden’s “predecessor.” But by comparison to Biden’s usual rhetoric, and the kind of pablum Americans have come to expect from presidents not named Trump, it was a refreshingly partisan address—one from a president who’s spent much of his term thus far minimizing the severity of America’s partisan divides.

It was also refreshingly loud. Biden spoke forcefully, coughing and stumbling over here and there, yes, but never betraying any indications of real frailty or infirmity. That overall impression—of a vigorous president, strong enough to take the fight to his detractors⁠—will linger more deeply in the minds of most who watched than the substance of anything he said.

Knowing that, Biden’s speechwriters didn’t bother crafting a novel message. The speech was heavy on justified but now familiar admonitions about democracy and the threats to it, both foreign and domestic. There were references to January 6 and Vladimir Putin right up top; elsewhere, Biden called for a revival of the democratic reform push that fizzled with the For the People Act. Predictably, the Dobbs decision also took up a good chunk of rhetorical space. In one remarkable moment, Biden addressed the justices of the Supreme Court directly. “In the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the majority wrote the following—and with all due respect, Justices⁠—‘Women are not without electoral or political power,’” he said. “You’re about to realize just how right you were about that.” It was a bold statement, but unfortunately not the night’s boldest.

That came in another one of his ad-libbed confrontations with Republicans in the chamber. Several came to the speech with buttons bearing the name of Laken Riley, an Augusta University nursing student who was murdered by an undocumented immigrant last month. At one point during the speech, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene and others shouted at Biden to say her name. And he did, holding up a button he’d obtained. “Laken Riley—an innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal, that’s right,” he said. “But how many thousands of people are being killed by illegals?” It’s unclear what Biden meant to say with the second part of his statement, but calling undocumented immigrants “illegals” hasn’t been part of the Democratic script for some time.

That line was accompanied by a call to pass the immigration bill Democrats and a cadre of Republicans have been pushing for weeks now, one The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board tellingly praised for featuring more restrictive border measures than Trump had ever managed to pass or implement himself. In the speech, Biden himself referred to it as “a bipartisan bill with the toughest set of border security reforms we’ve ever seen.” After audible moaning and groaning from Republicans in the chamber, Biden scoffed. “Oh, you don’t think so?” he asked. “You don’t like that bill, huh? That conservatives got together and said was a good bill? I’ll be darned. That’s amazing.”

It’s doubtful that this particular bill and performances like this will actually help Democrats on immigration. In fact, raising the salience of the issue for immigration-sensitive voters may well benefit Trump, the candidate they’ve come to trust on the matter for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the fine details of how Trump’s asylum policies compare to Biden’s. But this rhetoric will definitely continue to anger party progressives who are already deeply angry about the administration’s handling of the war in Gaza.

One of the new policies in the speech that was previewed for journalists well in advance was the administration’s announcement of the creation of an offshore pier that will be constructed by American troops and tasked with sending more humanitarian aid into Gaza. That news ⁠was accompanied by an acknowledgment of the war’s toll—“More than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed, most of whom are not Hamas,” Biden said. “Nearly two million more Palestinians under bombardment or displaced, homes destroyed, neighborhoods in rubble, cities in ruin,” he would add⁠—along with a reiteration of the administration’s call for an “immediate cease-fire that would last for at least six weeks.” Still, Biden didn’t so much as mention the possibility of conditioning aid and support for Israel on meeting American demands.

All this aside, most who tuned in to the speech probably wanted to hear more about the economy than any other issue, and they heard a good bit about how well it’s doing (“15 million new jobs in just three years—that’s a record!” “Unemployment at 50-year lows.” “A record 16 million Americans are starting small businesses, and each one is an act of hope”). It’s not clear how many Americans will come to agree with this picture by the time November rolls around. Economic sentiment does seem to be picking up; driving it up further will probably be a matter of talking about more than the macrolevel successes of Bidenomics that Biden also spent some of the speech defending.

Out of an awareness of that, the administration has been talking up simple and small but understandable policy items, such as getting rid of junk fees, and a new concerted effort to tackle “shrinkflation.” (“You get charged the same amount, but you’ve got, I don’t know, maybe 10 percent fewer Snickers,” Biden explained.) Those ideas, along with some modest relief for homebuyers, and the now-standard slate of health care reforms Democrats offer every cycle—using Medicare to lower drug prices, capping the price of insulin, and so on—are just about the only concrete parts of Biden’s second-term economic agenda at this point. There was a call to pass the PRO Act, as well as references to the paid leave and home care policies jettisoned in Build Back Better. But the administration’s overall vision is constrained⁠—perhaps by the likelihood that a reelected Biden may begin his second term without the Democratic trifecta he would need to take another FDR-size swing.

But this is looking far ahead. In fairness to the president and his team, the central task of the campaign at the moment is making it clear to voters that Biden is physically capable of making it to and through a second term in the first place. By that measure, the speech was clearly a success. Biden, grinning throughout, seemed to know it.