President Biden’s State of the Union Address Sets the Stage for 2024

President Biden

He pushed on despite more than a little heckling from the red side of the aisle.

President Biden didn’t pull his punches during his State of the Union address last night.

Standing in front of Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker Kevin McCarthy, he delivered a full-throated, optimistic vision of the future that seemed designed to set him up for a re-election bid — despite more than a little heckling from the red side of the aisle. We’ve rounded up a few of the key themes, here.

“Restoring the dignity of work”

Biden touted achievements like record-low unemployment and rising take-home pay, and promised the “folks” at home that he has “your back.”

“For too long, workers have been getting stiffed,” Biden said.

“Not anymore. We’re beginning to restore the dignity of work. For example, 30 million workers had to sign non-compete agreements when they took a job. So a cashier at a burger place can’t cross the street to take the same job at another burger place to make a couple bucks more.

Not anymore. We’re banning those agreements so companies have to compete for workers and pay them what they’re worth. I’m so sick and tired of companies breaking the law by preventing workers from organizing.”

It will, of course, be a tall order to pass any pro-union legislation in the Republican-controlled House — but the president’s comments on low unemployment check out.

“President Biden’s economic plan is working,” Commerce Secretary Raimondo tweeted last week. “When President Biden took office, the unemployment rate was 6.3%. Today, it is just 3.4%. That’s the lowest in 54 years.”

Populist messaging

The president was clearly eager to connect with annoyed consumers, calling for action to boost domestic manufacturing, and a bill to halt “junk fees” and hidden surcharges like surprise add-ons to hotel bills.

“Junk fees may not matter to the very wealthy, but they matter to most folks in homes like the one I grew up in,” Biden said.

“They add up to hundreds of dollars a month. They make it harder for you to pay the bills or afford that family trip. I know how unfair it feels when a company overcharges you and gets away with it. Not anymore.”

He also pointed to slowing inflation, plus growth in small business and U.S. manufacturing. 

“We have more to do, but here at home, inflation is coming down,” he said.

“Here at home, gas prices are down $1.50 a gallon since their peak. Food inflation is coming down. Inflation has fallen every month for the last six months while take-home pay has gone up. Additionally, over the last two years, a record 10 million Americans applied to start a new small business.

All these claims are true — though as CNN points out, Biden failed to note that gas prices tend to fluctuate largely independently of presidential policy, and remain higher than they were when he took office.

Sparring with GOP-ers

Biden repeatedly stressed the importance of Democrats and Republicans working together for the greater good, but not everyone seemed convinced.

Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene yelled “liar” when Biden said some Republicans want to make cuts to Social Security and Medicare — but Biden managed to turn boos into cheers.

“Those are the facts, check it out,” Biden said, as the chamber started heating up. “Check it out!” he continued over rising boos and jeers.

“How did Congress respond to all that debt?” Biden asked. “They did the right thing, they lifted the debt ceiling three times without preconditions or crisis.”

Speaker Kevin McCarthy shook his head when Biden referred to Republican Medicare cuts. In fairness, McCarthy has explicitly said cuts are off the table, but it’s no secret that it’s a point of contention.

Biden ad-libbed in response to Republican shouts, calling: “Contact my office, I’ll give you a copy of the proposal.” He added that though he recognizes that cutting Social Security isn’t a desire held by the majority of Republicans, “it’s being proposed by some of you.” (He was referring to a controversial proposal by Sen. Rick Scott of Florida.)

Other notable instances of Republicans taking aim at Social Security include a statement from Senator Mike Lee, who was caught on camera saying: “I’m here right now to tell you one thing you’ve probably never heard from a politician: It’ll be my objective to phase out Social Security.”

Lee was among the GOP-ers who called Biden a “liar” on Tuesday. Another, Sen. Ron Johnson, has said that Congress should reconsider entitlement programs annually. Johnson’s also told a radio show that Social Security and Medicare should be junked as “mandatory” programs and instead be subject to “discretionary” spending, meaning they’d have to be renewed by Congress every year.

Remarks on Tyre Nichols

President Biden paid tribute to RowVaughn and Rodney Wells, who came as first lady Jill Biden’s guests, and received a standing ovation from the House.

“Imagine what it’s like to lose a child at the hands of the law,” he said.

“Imagine having to worry whether your son or daughter will come home from walking down the street or playing in the park or just driving their car. I’ve never had to have the talk with my children – Beau, Hunter, and Ashley – that so many Black and Brown families have had with their children.”

“I know most cops are good, decent people,” he continued. “They risk their lives every time they put on that shield. But what happened to Tyre in Memphis happens too often. We have to do better.

Biden recalled signing an executive order for all federal officers banning chokeholds, restricting no-knock warrants, and other key elements of the George Floyd Act — a move that was necessary since lawmakers failed to find an agreement that could pass the House and the Senate.

“All of us in this chamber, we need to rise to this moment,” he said.

“We can’t turn away. Let’s do what we know in our hearts we need to do. Let’s come together and finish the job on police reform.”

Taking on China

President Biden made it clear that he will protect American sovereignty amid domestic strife over the perceived delay in shooting down a Chinese spy balloon.

“Make no mistake: as we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did,” he said.

His remarks encapsulated a shift in tone regarding U.S.-China relations, which though already tense, have been thrown into further uncertainty by the incident.

“Before I came to office, the story was about how the People’s Republic of China was increasing its power and America was falling in the world,” he said.

“Not anymore. I’ve made clear with President Xi that we seek competition, not conflict.”

Biden singled out President Xi Jinping as he slammed autocracies worldwide, calling “Name me a world leader who’d change places with Xi Jinping. Name me one!”