It is a measure of the political divisions in the United States that President Joe Biden was openly heckled and jeered at during his annual State of the Union (SOTU) address to both houses of the US Congress on Tuesday.
Some Republicans shouted “liar” and “bullshit” at various points in his address. A little more than a decade ago, a member was actually censured by the whole House of Representatives for shouting “You lie” to President Obama during his joint address to Congress.
Needless to say the President with years of experience in the Congress, relished the jeering and came prepared with well-timed counters to his critics. In fact, the jousting seemed to give him a certain fluency that is sometimes missing in the 80-year-old’s conduct. He battled playfully with his critics and seemed very much in command of the situation.
His strongest attack came when he said that some Republicans want to cut Medicare (federal health insurance for people 65 and older) and Social Security (programme for retirement benefits and disability income for qualified people and their spouses and children). This is where several Republicans called him a “liar.”
Biden's Economic Policy
Biden knows that with the Republicans in control, he is not likely to have an easy job in Congress in the coming two years. But he doesn’t really care for that since the central part of his economic agenda has already gotten legislative approval for spending trillions of dollars.
This includes a wide-ranging infrastructure bill, a climate, healthcare and prescription drug and tax package (the so-called inflation reduction bill) and a law to invest USD 250 billion in US semiconductor manufacturing and science. The President argued that his policies had helped the US economy to recover from COVID and that the unemployment rate is at a 53-year low.
“Two years ago,” he said, the economy was reeling. I stand here tonight after we’ve created with the help of many people in this room, 12 million new jobs—more jobs created in two years than any president has created in four years.”
By all accounts, the speech was well received and Biden is now soon expected to announce his bid for re-election next year. However, as of now, his approval ratings remain low and most Democrats do not want him to run for a second term. The President, on the other hand, believes that as the legislation passed in the past two years goes into the implementation mode, public opinion will swing into his favour.
How Biden Deals With Critics Of His Welfare Proposals
Despite the occasional run-ins with his Republican critics, Biden took the opportunity to take the high road and preach unity to his opponents. He presented himself as an elder statesman who had in the past as well worked with people on both sides of the aisle, declaring that “fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict gets us nowhere.” In line with the issues he had raised in 2022, he called for a joint endeavor to tackle the opioid epidemic, improving mental health, supporting veterans, and fighting cancer.
He also outlined several new economic proposals during his speech which included a quadrupling the 1% tax on stock buybacks so as to encourage companies to invest in their growth instead of benefiting shareholders. He also announced a proposal for issuing a guidance that would require US-made construction materials for projects arising from the infrastructure law.
Following the approval for a minimum 15 per cent tax on corporations, Biden also called for a minimum tax on ultra-wealthy Americans. He also called for extending the provision for capping out-of-pocket expenses of insulin for Medicare beneficiaries in the current infrastructure act to all Americans and suggested that laws be adopted to improve the affordability of child care and housing.
The President also addressed issues dear to the Democrats such as protecting abortion rights and police reform. The latter issue was highlighted by the presence of the mother and stepfather of Tyre Nichols who was recently beaten to death by the police in Memphis. His reference to police reform earned him a standing ovation from both sides of the aisle. But on abortion, Biden admitted that he will be unable to do anything in the next two years but that he would veto any law that calls for a national ban on abortion.
With Biden running with the agenda, the Republicans face a stark choice. They can and they will block many of his proposals more so since the House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has signed a deal which enables any House member to move a resolution of No-confidence on him whenever they want. However, it will not be sufficient for them to simply attack the President and run a series of hearings, that they have threatened to unleash against him and his family.
(Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)