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When a fur-coiffed Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene yelled “liar” Tuesday night, among the loudest in an abrupt chorus of boos, the oldest President to ever deliver a State of the Union address didn’t miss a beat. He smiled and went far afield from his script as GOP lawmakers tried to reject his claims that Republicans were ready to gut social entitlement programs.
“Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right? We’ve got unanimity?” he asked. “Apparently it’s not going to be a problem,” he deadpanned at another moment.
The striking exchange, and Biden’s ease in handling it in front of an audience of millions, illustrated why the Democratic establishment isn’t yet ready to toss their 80-year-old standard-bearer overboard.
Despite a halting, vamped opening to Tuesday’s State of the Union speech—a Super Bowl joke? Why?— Biden proved himself plenty capable of holding his own when his Republican hecklers started to stalk him. In fact, he actually demonstrated how he might be able to troll them into their own self-own status in real time. Give Biden acrimony, he’ll toss back accomplishments. Throw him hostility, he’ll offer hope.
“As my football coach used to say, ‘Lots of luck in your senior year,’” he deadpanned at one point, mocking lawmakers who seemed to think high school was the same as the big leagues of Congress.
Biden baited Greene’s fellow Republicans into pledges of fealty to Social Security. When others pummeled him on the U.S.-Mexican dotted line—”secure the border”—Biden taunted them with an offer to work on comprehensive immigration reform. And when Republicans tried to lay blame at the ongoing drug addiction and overdose crisis at Biden’s feet, he simply asked Republicans if they’d work with him to combat it.
For as much as Democrats are gritting their teeth and girding for the worst when it comes to Biden’s likely 2024 campaign, Tuesday night’s State of the Union gave them reason to hold onto optimism. It wasn’t a robust reason, but it was sufficient. Biden showed he can keep his ground in the face of Republican attack; in fact, he seemed to delight in the heckling that came from the floor of the House. For every “liar”—and worse—that rose from the floor, Biden seemed ready with the rejoinder of his first-term economic record. For every peel of stage laughter coming from his physical left and his political right, Biden stood ready to offer some undeniably impressive facts. And for every protest to his trolling suggestion that Republicans were ready to ditch Social Security, Biden had a taunt right in the margins of his heavy black binder.
Biden’s third joint address to Congress set the tone not just for the next year but also his still-unannounced re-election campaign. Biden laid the trap of bipartisan collaboration as well as anyone in recent memory but also set the timer on some partisan timebombs.
Biden is convinced that he is the only Democrat in the land who can block Donald Trump’s return to the White House and is increasingly itchy to make his 2024 re-election bid real. He has effectively frozen the field of would-be challengers, resetting the nominating calendar in such a way that renders challengers as also-rans. He has never been a strong fundraiser or nurturer of outside moneybags, but the deep-pocketed allies are nonetheless ready to bankroll his efforts to stay in the gig that he has chased since his 20s.
So it’s worth considering Tuesday night’s State of the Union as the prologue to Biden’s next chapter, perhaps the final eighth volume in his Robert Caro-esque chronicle. (For the record, not that I’d write it: the first volume would be the first Senate race; Volume II: his Senate term ahead of the 1988 race; III: his return to the Senate; IV: the 2008 primary: V: his time as Vice President; VI: his time as a free radical from 2016-20; and VII: the last two years, leading us to the present.) Biden holds dear to him the spirit of Irish poets, in that the specter of legacy is always just barely off-stage and always above it. Biden wants wins, and his speech—and the interruptions to it—suggest a measure of confrontation is going to define it.
That said, Republicans weren’t entirely sure that the interludes of heckling and hectoring were useful to their side. In fact, plenty of Republicans groaned in the chamber and groused privately that the likes of Greene managed to make the speech into an interactive experience not terribly dissimilar to the British Parliament’s tradition of P.M. Questions. In public, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy shushed his caucus a number of times as they chucked invectives at Biden. More quietly—but still in view of the public—Utah Sen. Mitt Romney tried to silence a GOP House member who has proven plenty shameful to the brand. Romney—who in 2008 and 2012 thought he would do well to be giving a State of the Union himself as President—told Rep. George Santos that he was an embarrassment. Biden seemed to share that assessment, opting to see Santos and deny him a handshake on the aisle.
Again, Biden mightn’t be the most optimal nominee-in-waiting Democrats have ever had on deck, but he’s hardly the most problematic. And that, right there, is why Tuesday night’s State of the Union leaves a whole of the Democratic Party’s top donor roster less dour than they began their week. It’s also why the ragtag Republican contenders hoping to see a slow, doddering commander in chief ready to be put out to pasture were standing at the starting line with empty hands.
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