Five takeaways from Biden’s State of the Union speech

WASHINGTON (BBC): Joe Biden delivered an animated and at times combative State of the Union speech at a pivotal moment for his presidency. It came as he is poised to launch a re-election campaign and is dealing with Republicans controlling one chamber of Congress for the first time.

Here are five key takeaways from his evening in the spotlight, speaking to a sharply divided Congress and an audience of tens of millions of Americans.

1. It was America first, foreign policy last

The Chinese surveillance balloon was a huge story in America over the weekend, but it received barely a mention from the president, in the bottom third of his speech.

“As we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country,” he said. “And we did.”

And that was it for the balloon talk.

The other big foreign policy story of the past year, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, also received scant attention. The president welcomed Ukraine’s ambassador to the US, seated in the gallery, and heralded allied support for the nation. But he did not use the opportunity to call for new aid to the war-torn nation.

The president made no mention whatsoever of the recent earthquake in Syria and Turkey – and the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding. Instead, the president’s focus dominated by domestic concerns.

There’s a saying that Americans only care about foreign policy when US soldiers are dying overseas. Joe Biden, in this speech at least, seems to have taken that to heart.

2. It’s still the economy, stupid

What Americans do care about, according to public opinion surveys, is the economy. And they, by and large, believe the nation is still struggling. If the nation is bouncing back, they’re not feeling it yet.

Mr Biden’s speech was a high-profile effort to change their minds and, in doing so, boost his chances of re-election.

He spoke about record-low unemployment. He said that inflation and high energy prices, which have been a lead weight on his approval ratings for the past 18 months, are now declining. And he discussed all the ways his legislative accomplishments to date will help improve the nation’s industrial base.

Then he pivoted to a refrain he would use again and again – that it was time to “finish the job” and pass new legislation to boost the economy. It was an effort to cast eyes toward the future and offer a vision he can offer to Americans wondering what an 80-year-old president has left in the tank.

3. Biden tried to play nice with Republicans

But if Mr Biden wants to finish the job in this political environment, he will need Republican help.

The new face behind Joe Biden in this State of the Union address was Kevin McCarthy, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives. And he served as a fairly accurate barometer of Mr Biden’s attempts to convince Republicans that they could be his partners in job-finishing.

When the president boasted about the bipartisan accomplishments during his first two years in office, Mr McCarthy politely clapped and even cracked an occasional smile. The president noted co-operation on infrastructure spending, high-tech investment in microchip manufacturing, military aid to Ukraine, federal protections for gay marriage and electoral reform, among other topics.

“We’re often told that Democrats and Republicans can’t work together,” he said. “But over these past two years, we proved the cynics and the naysayers wrong.”

Those naysayers are predicting that not much will get done of substance in the coming year, as Republicans and Democrats clash over policy priorities. But for at least a few minutes, the president and the speaker played nice – and offered hope that gloomy predictions might be wrong.

4. He also picked a fight (and got heckled)

It didn’t take long for all that to come crashing down, however, when Mr Biden turned his attention to raising the debt limit.

On that topic, Mr Biden and House Republicans are engaging in a high-stakes game of chicken with the US economy at stake. And the president, in his speech, showed no sign of blinking – and may have poked his Republican counterparts in the eyes.

Referencing Republican demands to link a debt-limit increase to spending cuts, Mr Biden noted that no president added more to the national debt than his predecessor, Donald Trump.

Republicans responded to that line with hoots of derision.

He then tried to link Republican demands on the debt limit to some conservative proposals to cut Social Security and Medicare – the popular government-run retirement and health insurance programmes.

Mr McCarthy scowled, and Republicans howled in anger. Toward the back of the chamber, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene – who had earlier paraded around the halls of Congress with a white balloon – stood and shouted that the president was a “liar”.

Earlier in the day, the House speaker had reportedly cautioned his fellow Republicans to hold their tongues and observe congressional decorum. It was, it turns out, a futile effort – and a telling indication of the partisan animosity that courses through this Congress.

5. Invited guests provided emotional moments

Like every State of the Union address, Mr Biden’s speech also included a laundry list of new rehashed proposals during his presidential address, most of which have little chance of becoming law.

He spoke emotionally about the need for police reform and new gun-control legislation, pointing to presidential guests in the gallery- the parents of Tyre Nichols and a hero from the Monterey Park mass shooting – to drive home his points.

“All of us in the chamber, we need to rise to this moment,” he said. “We can’t turn away.”

The reality, however, is that neither effort has much chance of success. If Congress is going to come together for new legislation, there’s a better chance it will be to tackle “junk fees” that the president railed against, including bank surcharges, resort fees and airline seating charges.

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

American politicians may not be able to agree on how to address police brutality and gun violence, they may be deadlocked on the debt limit and uninterested in foreign affairs, but no one likes Ticketmaster “convenience” charges.