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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden calls on Republicans to help him ‘finish the job’ and build the economy

President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union speech to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023.

By Peter Baker

President Joe Biden challenged the new House Republican majority on Tuesday night to work together with him to “finish the job” of repairing America’s unsettled economy and fragile democracy even as the emboldened opposition geared up to try to force him to change course.

In the first State of the Union address of a new era of divided government that at times turned strikingly rowdy, Biden vowed to cooperate with the other party but offered no concessions to it. Instead, he called on Republicans to embrace his program of raising taxes on the wealthy and extending social aid to the needy, citing bipartisan legislation passed when Democrats were in charge.

“To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there’s no reason we can’t work together and find consensus on important things in this Congress as well,” Biden said in what amounted to the opening of a reelection campaign he plans to formally announce by spring.

“The people sent us a clear message,” he added. “Fighting for the sake of the fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict, gets us nowhere.” Instead, he said, “we’ve been sent here to finish the job, in my view.”

The president’s first major encounter with the newly empowered House Republicans featured stark moments of unscripted drama the likes of which were rarely seen during State of the Union addresses of the past. When he mentioned the fentanyl crisis, introducing a father who lost a daughter to an overdose, some Republicans heckled him over drugs entering the country. “The border! The border!” some shouted. “It’s your fault!”

At another point, Biden engaged in a remarkable spontaneous colloquy with Republicans when he accused them of threatening Social Security and Medicare, an assertion that drew some of them to their feet as they rejected the assertion loudly and angrily. At least one of them shouted, “Bullshit!”

“Liar!” screamed Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga.

“Contact my office,” the president responded, offering to give her proof of his point.

When Republicans continued to deny they planned to cut the social programs, the president extended the dialogue, pronouncing himself happy that Republicans were committing to leave the programs alone. “I’m glad to see — no, I tell you, I enjoy conversion,” said Biden, who often refers to his Catholic faith.

He sought to lock in the moment. “So, folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right?” he said. “All right. We’ve got unanimity.” Then he exhorted the lawmakers. “Let’s stand up for seniors!” he commanded, one of the few times Republicans did join Democrats in jumping to their feet to applaud.

But there was little sense that the two sides would agree on much else. He was left to shout at Republicans to pass what he could not in the past two years. “Ban assault weapons now!” he yelled. “Ban them now!”

Introducing the parents of Tyre Nichols, the Black man who died after being beaten by five police officers in Memphis, Tennessee, who were sitting in the first lady’s box with Jill Biden, the president implored lawmakers to overhaul policing. “Do something,” he said. “Do something.”

The 80-year-old president seemed to draw energy from the feisty exchanges, speaking for 73 minutes to an audience watching to see how he met the test. Biden, whose age is a source of anxiety for Democrats, at first raced through the early pages of his text, occasionally stumbling over words and flubbing some of his lines. He demoted Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., from majority leader to minority leader.

But after a shaky start, he appeared to gather momentum in the longest speech to Congress of his presidency and gave the impression that he enjoyed the back-and-forth with Republican hecklers. Afterward, he lingered for more than 45 minutes to work the crowd, glad-handing members and posing for selfies. A forgiving Schumer exulted that Biden showed “vigor,” and White House aides told reporters that they were charged up by the confrontation over social programs.

Biden’s finish-the-job mantra, a phrase he repeated a dozen times, characterized an address that included no major new policy direction. Instead, reaching out to disaffected Americans who feel left behind economically, he rattled off a series of relatively modest populist ideas focused on relatable issues such as curbing credit card late fees, airline price gouging and exhorbitant bank overdraft service charges. “Here’s my message to all of you out there: I have your back,” he said.

Republicans brushed off Biden’s call for cooperation Tuesday even before he was to arrive at the Capitol, which was once again surrounded by security fences two years after a mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the building on Jan. 6, 2021, seeking to halt the counting of electoral votes sealing Biden’s election. They portrayed Biden as a failed leader captured by the liberal wing of his party.

The shifting power dynamics were on display Tuesday night. Sitting behind the president for the first time at a joint session was the newly selected Republican House speaker, Kevin McCarthy of California, who won his post after 15 ballots and promises to his right wing to confront Biden aggressively at every turn.

Biden made a point of congratulating McCarthy and shaking hands with him. “Speaker, I don’t want to ruin your reputation,” he said jokingly, “but I look forward to working with you.” McCarthy offered a tight smile but sat unmoved through most of the speech. When some of his members began shouting, though, he seemed to be trying to shush them.

The hovering presence of the president’s defeated predecessor manifested itself as well, with the party’s official response assigned to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas, who served as Trump’s White House press secretary. Trump has already announced his campaign to run for president again in next year’s election, setting up the prospect of a rematch with Biden.

“He is simply unfit to serve as commander in chief,” Sanders said of Biden in her speech. “And while you reap the consequences of their failures, the Biden administration seems more interested in woke fantasies than the hard reality Americans face every day. Most Americans simply want to live their lives in freedom and peace, but we are under attack in a left-wing culture war we didn’t start and never wanted to fight.”

In taking the rostrum Tuesday night, however, Biden’s challenge was not only to navigate the new partisan realities of Washington but to persuade the broader nation that it is on the right path after the devastation wreaked by the COVID-19 pandemic and the Jan. 6 attack. He sought to offer an optimistic vision in sour times, celebrating economic gains at a moment when polls show that many Americans still do not feel them.

He directly addressed those who still remain unsettled by the economy.

“You wonder whether a path even exists anymore for your children to get ahead without having to move away. Well, that’s why I get that,” he said. “That’s why we’re building an economy where no one is left behind. Jobs are coming back, pride is coming back.”

He added: “You know, this is, in my view, a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America and make a real difference in your lives at home.”

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