Speaking before Congress for the first time since Republicans captured the House majority, President Joe Biden opened his State of the Union address Tuesday night by celebrating how far the nation’s economy has come since high inflation peaked last summer and taking credit for the decrease in unemployment.
Biden also touted a unity agenda focused on areas where he believes Democrats and Republicans can find common ground. “The people sent us a clear message,” Biden said, with new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy standing behind him. “Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict, gets us nowhere.”
The President’s speech before a politically divided Congress comes as the nation grapples with complex domestic and international issues, including economic instability, a standoff over raising the debt limit, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, and escalating tensions with China. Biden offered a reassuring assessment of the nation’s current state as it emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic with its lowest unemployment rate since 1969. The economy created 12.1 million jobs between January 2021, when Biden took office, and this January, more jobs created in two years than under any previous President during a four-year term.
But he acknowledged persistent high prices and continued anxiety about the future, and he referenced the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol and threats to the democratic process. “Two years ago, democracy faced its greatest threat since the Civil War,” Biden said. “And today, our democracy remains unbound and unbroken.”
Biden’s speech Tuesday night is a dress rehearsal for his likely reelection campaign, when the President will once again try to convince American voters that his experienced leadership and willingness to work across the aisle makes him the right leader in polarizing times. Biden is hoping to tout his success over the last two years at getting some Republicans to sign on to major investments in infrastructure, boosting tech manufacturing in the U.S., and a modest gun safety bill.
These are the key moments from Biden’s 2023 State of the Union speech.
What Biden plans to highlight
Rather than float flashy policy proposals like he did a year ago, Biden is expected to primarily focus his speech on what he has accomplished during his first two years in office. With Republicans now in control of the House, his attention is increasingly on making sure voters credit him for major legislative wins, including the bipartisan infrastructure package, legislation to promote domestic semiconductor production, and climate measures.
He is also expected to touch on raising the debt ceiling before the government runs out of money in June. Some House Republicans want cuts to programs like Medicare and Social Security in exchange for their support. Biden says he won’t negotiate over raising the limit, since raising the ceiling only allows the U.S. to pay bills Congress has already agreed to and defaulting could call into question the good faith and credit of the United States, make borrowing more expensive, and send shockwaves through the global economy.
In addition to finding a way through the looming debt ceiling crisis, White House officials say Biden will talk about working across the aisle to lower the costs of some prescription drugs, improve veteran care, extend investments into cancer research, and reduce deaths from opioids. The President will also likely promote some ideas that will be dead-on-arrival among Republicans, including raising taxes on the wealthy, instituting a minimum corporate tax, and banning assault weapons.
Biden’s address comes at a time when his approval rating is hovering around 42%, among the lowest average second-year approval ratings of any modern president (only his predecessor, President Donald Trump, had a lower second-year average rating). One persistent drag on Biden’s ratings has been the economy, which is still reeling from high inflation. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Sunday found that four in 10 Americans say they are financially worse off since Biden took office. That same poll found that 62% of Americans would be disappointed or angry if Biden won a second term.
Every year, members of Congress and the First Lady invite guests to the State of the Union who they wish to recognize, thank, or help bring attention to specific issues.
Among this year’s presidential guests sitting with First Lady Jill Biden in the House gallery are the parents of Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old Black man who was beaten to death by police officers in Memphis on Jan. 7; Brandon Tsay, the California man who disarmed a gunman in the Monterey Park shooting that killed 11 people on Jan. 22; Paul Pelosi, the husband of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was attacked on Oct. 28 in their San Francisco home by a man searching for his wife; Oksana Markarova, the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States; and Bono, the singer who has championed AIDS treatment.
Accompanying them in the First Lady’s box are cancer survivors, business owners, students, a young immigrant seeking legal status, a father who lost a child to a fentanyl overdose, a couple who advocated for legalizing same-sex marriage, a Holocaust survivor, an ironworker, a Navy spouse, and a woman who nearly died during pregnancy due to a delay in receiving treatment because of Texas’ abortion law.