Never Underestimate Joe Biden Again
For us avid political watchers, if elections are our Superbowl, the State of the Union is our playoffs. It’s a time for the president to hold the microphone and the attention of the American people. We all hear his (or one day, her) pitch while witnessing the response from supporters and detractors. And last night’s speech was one for the history books: a true and frankly unexpected masterclass on how to handle an unruly and disrespectful group of extremists while driving home not only your agenda but also the difference between your vision of America and theirs.
The theme of the State of the Union was “Finish the Job” but it could well have been called “Finish the GOP.” The contrast was stark between a jocular yet determined, insightful yet earnest, friend-of-the-average-worker Joe Biden on the one hand, and the jeering, disruptive and extremist GOP on the other. It was so stark, in fact, that the official response by Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas unwittingly summed it up nicely: “The dividing line in America is no longer between right or left,” she warned in prepared remarks, without a trace of irony. “The choice is between normal or crazy.”
Biden and his advisers understood the predicament that Speaker Kevin McCarthy faced as he sat there, on camera, during the extent of the speech. Every time Biden said something “normal” and decent, McCarthy, along with his GOP colleagues, had to make a calculation. Do they remain silent? Applaud? Stand? To box them in, Biden began with humor and disarming self-deprecation. “Mr. Speaker, I don’t want to ruin your reputation but I look forward to working together,” Biden joked at the start of his address.
He then leaned into a call for bipartisanship, acknowledging that in his first two years, “we disagreed plenty” but then immediately appealing for cooperation, which is what Americans want to see. “To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can’t work together in this Congress as well,” he said.
From there, we rarely saw McCarthy looking happy. While Biden touted his many bipartisan successes—the CHIPS and Science Act, the infrastructure bill, gun safety legislation—McCarthy and the GOP looked decidedly displeased. The reason was clear: While these bills had met the critical Senate threshold of 60 votes to overcome the filibuster in that chamber, they had been deeply unpopular among House Republicans. To bring up bipartisan successes before the House Caucus was to drive a perfect wedge between the House GOP obstructionists and the Senate’s more constructive members. The result was a right side of the chamber last night that could not bring itself to applaud even bipartisan successes, at least not until Biden mentioned the PACT Act and veterans suffering from burn pit injuries. McCarthy almost seemed relieved to be able to stand up for something.
The key moment came around 50 minutes in, however, when Biden turned unapologetically and forcefully to the economy and the question on everyone’s minds: What about the debt ceiling and threats to cut Social Security and Medicare? Biden went on the attack and jabbed directly at extremists in the GOP. “Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset,” he warned.
There are, in fact, serious proposals from top GOP officials saying exactly this, but you wouldn’t know that from the response Biden elicited. Never in the history of a State of the Union address have so many jeers and catcalls, with shouts of “liar” from members like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), erupted from the crowd. It was only 14 years ago that a lone shout of “You lie!” from Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) led to headlines, an apology, and an official reprimand by the House. But that isn’t likely in this raucous and disruptive 118th Congress.
As boos erupted at his remarks, Biden doubled down. “Anyone who doubts it, contact my office. I’ll give you a copy of the proposal!” he insisted, leaning forward with a broad, confident smile. As the hubbub continued, Biden laid his trap. “I enjoy conversion,” he teased, going off-script to remark on how many Republicans now appeared to be disavowing any attack on those programs. “I’m not saying it’s the majority,” Biden said about the ones who want to kill Social Security, to continued protests and shouts. “I’m not even saying it’s even a significant…” He paused, then scanned out across the right side of the chamber, letting the tension and shouts of protest build. “It’s being proposed by individuals. I’m politely not naming them,” he added.
At this point, most people, including myself, had no idea where this was going. It seemed as if chaos had descended on the Hill. Cameras were cutting to Republicans indicating, “who?!” as if Biden were completely making this up. Rep. Greene was leaping from her chair and giving the thumbs down. C-SPAN panned to Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), who is actually one of the lawmakers who has proposed such a sunset, and he, too, feigned outrage and surprise.
“So folks,” Biden said, quietly, springing his trap. “As we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare are off the books now.”
As delighted Democrats rose to appreciate this turnaround, some Republicans also tentatively began to clap, then some began to stand. “All right!” Biden cheered. “We have unanimity!” Democrats were smiling and laughing at how deftly Biden had played the GOP. But he wasn’t done. “So tonight, let’s all agree,” he said, his arms wide and inviting. “Let’s stand up for seniors.” He shook both fists in a decided “yes!” as he witnessed the entire chamber rise, a defeated Kevin McCarthy joining him in a full standing ovation. “Stand up and show them!” Biden cried, his victory now total as the ovation continued.
In less than two minutes, Biden took a key flash point out of consideration in the upcoming debt ceiling showdown. Commentator Lawrence O’Donnell summed up the astonishing play nicely. “He negotiates the budget, during the State of the Union, on live TV… And. He. Wins.”
If you want to see a clip of the entire amazing moment, you can view it here. It ought to be shown in every political science class on effective governance from now on.
At this point, McCarthy, who already seemed like the only “sleepy” leader up there, was probably more than ready to pack up and go home. But Biden was not finished with him or the GOP. Drawing the contrast once again between normal and crazy, Biden held some of his sharpest weapons to the end. Here were some highlights in rapid succession, courtesy of HuffPo’s Jennifer Bendery, who provided real-time commentary.
“Two years ago, our democracy faced its greatest threat since the Civil War,” Biden said. “Today, though bruised, our democracy remains unbowed and unbroken.” At these words, McCarthy remained quietly seated—unable to stand because many of his own caucus participated in that attack on democracy. Awkward.
“Ban assault weapons once and for all!” Biden later urged. And then the camera cut to Rep. Lauren Boebert with that face.
“Fentanyl is killing more than 70,000 Americans a year," Biden intoned gravely. “It’s your fault!” shouted an unruly male GOP caucus member. Biden paused, with notable side eye. And McCarthy actually mouthed to shush his own party member. (Earlier, McCarthy had told reporters, “We’re members of Congress. We have a code of ethics of how we should portray ourselves; that's exactly what we'll do. We’re not going to be doing childish games tearing up a speech.”)
And finally, this telling moment: Biden, near the end of his speech, urged unity against anti-democratic forces. “We must give hate and extremism in any form no safe harbor,” Biden said. “Democracy must not be a partisan issue. It must be an American issue.” And once again, McCarthy, lacking the spine to stand up to the hateful extremists in his party, remained seated.
If there were any doubts about Biden’s readiness to take on the GOP and lead his party again in 2024, they were dispelled last night.
It was definitely the most fun SOTU speech I’ve watched. President Biden was masterful in his handling of the heckling. Even more so in his presentation of what more can be done by this Congress - if the few moderate-ish R reps have the intestinal fortitude to vote to serve their constituents instead of the far-right extreme members of their party.
POTUS was purposeful, not only in content, but on timing and delievery, playing the extremists like a well-worn instrument, rendering Marge impotently argy barging and McCarthy of no account, cast into purgatory.
Too bad that not one of that gaggle of miscreants will realize that they are owned, ad they utterly lack insight.
But it's still beautiful to behold.