Biden attacks Trump, defends democracy in fiery State of the Union address

President Joe Biden turned his State of the Union speech Thursday night into an animated argument for a second term as he laced into Republican front-runner Donald Trump for espousing “resentment, revenge and retribution” and jeopardising freedom at home and abroad.

Revelling in the political moment, Biden fired multiple broadsides at “my predecessor” without ever mentioning Trump by name – 13 times in all – raising his voice repeatedly as he worked to quell voter concerns about his age and job performance while sharpening the contrast with his all-but-certain rival in the November US presidential election.

It was a far different tone from Biden than in his previous State of the Union address, and it was designed to banish doubts about whether the 81-year-old is still up to the job as he bids for a second term. Biden goaded Republicans over their policies, invited call-and-response banter with fellow Democrats and seemed to revel in the fight.

“Freedom and democracy are under attack both at home and overseas at the very same time,” Biden said as he appealed for Congress to support Ukraine‘s efforts to defend itself against Russia‘s invasion. “History is watching.”

Biden quickly pivoted to the threats at home, referencing the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol by Trump supporters seeking to overturn the 2020 election, and calling for the threat to democracy to be countered.

“My predecessor – and some of you here – seek to bury the truth about January 6. I will not do that,” Biden said. “This is a moment to speak the truth and to bury the lies. Here’s a simple truth. You can’t love your country only when you win.”

To the relief of lawmakers in his party, who are acutely aware of how heavily his age is weighing on the presidential race, Biden was in rare form, showing stamina in an hour-plus speech, speaking in a clear tone and quick clip, taking jabs at Republicans and offering sprinkles of humour.

“I know it may not look like it, but I’ve been around a while,” the octogenarian president said with a grin. 

Reporting from Washington, FRANCE 24’s Fraser Jackson said Biden appeared more agile and feisty than he has in recent months. “Biden was trying to flip the script on this narrative for the last couple of months – he has had numerous gaffes over the course of the last couple of months,” said Jackson. “His supporters have been trying to get him to be more fiery and be more verbal. And that is exactly what we saw at the State of the Union speech on Thursday night. We saw a much more agile Biden. He was there. He was taking comments, heckles by the Republican side and pushing back against them.”

A victory lap for Biden’s policy achievements

The president showcased his accomplishments on infrastructure and manufacturing and pushed Congress to approve more aid to Ukraine, tougher immigration rules and lower drug prices. He also sought to remind voters of the situation he inherited when he entered office in 2021 amid a raging pandemic and a contracting economy.

Taking a victory lap in selling his legislative accomplishments, including a law to bolster manufacturing of computer chips nationwide, Biden veered from his prepared script to take a dig at Republicans who voted against such policies but are eager to take credit for them back home.

“If any of you don’t want that money in your districts,” Biden said, “just let me know”.

The president was speaking before a historically ineffective Congress. In the GOP-led House, Speaker Mike Johnson took power five months ago after the chaotic ouster of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Legislators are still struggling to approve funding bills for the current year and have been deadlocked for months on foreign assistance bills to help Ukraine stave off Russia’s invasion and support Israel‘s fight against Hamas.

Taxes on billionaires leave Republicans cold

The State of the Union address is a marquee night on the White House calendar, offering presidents a direct line to a captive audience of lawmakers and dignitaries in the House chamber and tens of millions of viewers at home. But even so, the night has lost some of its lustre as viewership has declined.

Biden aides inside the White House and on his campaign had hoped for some fresh viral moments like those of last year, when he tussled with heckling Republicans and chided them for past efforts to cut Medicare and Social Security.

Johnson, eager to avoid a similar episode this year, urged Republicans in a private meeting Wednesday to show “decorum” during the speech, according to a person familiar with his remarks to lawmakers.

He appeared to have limited success. A number of House Republicans began to stand up and leave the chamber as Biden discussed raising taxes on billionaires and corporations. Others, like Johnson, remained in their chairs and shook their heads.

Biden engaged in a loud call and response with lawmakers as he rhetorically questioned whether the tax code was fair and whether billionaires and corporations need “another $2 trillion in tax breaks”, as he charged Republicans want.

‘I know you know how to read’

One of the most contentious moments of his speech came during his remarks on immigration, when Biden was running down the endorsements by conservative groups of the bipartisan border legislation that Republicans killed last month.

Some in the audience appeared to yell and interject, and Biden shot back, “I know you know how to read.”

As Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene, decked out in pro-Trump paraphernalia, continued to shout at Biden, the president held up a white button that the Georgia Republican had handed him earlier bearing the name of Laken Riley, who authorities say was killed by a Venezuelan national who unlawfully crossed into the US in September 2022.

“Laken Riley,” Biden said, calling her an “innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal.” He expressed condolences to her family, saying his heart goes out to them.

Biden painted an optimistic future for the country as the massive pieces of legislation he signed into law during his first two years in office are implemented. But he also was set to warn that the progress he sees at home and abroad is fragile – and particularly vulnerable if Trump returns to the White House.

Trump, for his part, said he planned to respond to Biden’s remarks on his Truth Social platform.

Pins for Israel, keffiyehs for Palestinians

This year, Biden faced heightened emotions, particularly among his base supporters, over his staunch backing for Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza. The White House had initially hoped a short-term ceasefire would be in place by the speech. It blames Hamas for not yet accepting a deal brokered by the US and its allies.

A slew of Democrats and Republicans wore pins and stickers in honour of the Israeli hostages still being held captive in Gaza. Meanwhile, several House progressives wore Palestinian keffiyehs, the black and white checkered scarves that have come to symbolise Palestinian solidarity. Biden’s motorcade took a circuitous route to the Capitol, as hundreds of pro-ceasefire demonstrators tried to disrupt its path from the White House.

Amid growing concerns about the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, Biden announced in his address that he has directed the US military to establish a temporary port on the Gaza coast aimed at increasing the flow of aid into the beleaguered territory.

The president also issued an emphatic call for lawmakers to pass sorely needed defence assistance for Ukraine. Acute ammunition shortages have allowed Russia to retake the offensive in the 2-year-old war.

Access to abortion and fertility treatments was also a key component of Biden’s speech, especially in light of a controversial ruling from Alabama’s Supreme Court that has upended access to in vitro fertilisation treatments in the state.

“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,” Biden said. Several House Democratic women were wearing white – a symbol of women’s suffrage – to promote reproductive rights.

The White House also invited union leaders, a gun control advocate, and others that Jill Biden and her husband  met as they travelled the country promoting his agenda. The prime minister of Sweden, Ulf Kristersson, attended to mark his country’s accession to NATO in the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Following the speech, Biden was set for a weekend of campaign travel, holding events in Pennsylvania on Friday and Georgia on Saturday. Trump, too, is set to campaign in Georgia that day. The president’s Cabinet also will fan out across the country to amplify his message.

The Biden campaign had said it would host more than 200 watch parties around the country Thursday night, including in cities, suburbs and rural towns in battleground states. Campaign officials were slated to use the events to recruit volunteers and encourage others to get involved in Biden’s reelection effort.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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